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Listening to the Language of Bones

by Bonnie Gintis

When I took the oath as a physician on graduation day from Osteopathic medical school in 1986, I promised to listen deeply, to feel the messages conveyed by my patients' bodies, especially their bones, not knowing what that promise would eventually entail. After years of caring for people and devoting my studies and perceptual training to receiving the stories of other people's bones, my own bones call out more loudly than anything I've ever heard. My bones have become passageways for breast cancer to spread its cryptic message. I promised to listen, and now I hear an unexpected language spoken in a strange tempo that sounds like the static blur of a shortwave radio transmitting a distress signal from a faraway place in the night.

I yearn to understand the language of bones, of the dialect spoken by the cancer in my bones. What is the grammar of cancer? With what does its rhythm and cadence synchronize? A tumor bulges from within my sternum, hovering over my beating heart. Is there communication between my heart and the tumor, or is cancer like a sociopath, wreaking havoc and causing harm without having any empathy for the suffering it causes? The paradox is that this cancer in my bones is essentially made from my own cells. Do I have cancer, or does it have me? Is it mine? Can it be had? Is it an "it," or is it me? Have I been inflicted or gifted by this growing presence within me?

When I can't understand something, I turn towards the sensation of my moving breath, and look for resemblances and resonances with water. I lie in bed late at night when I cannot sleep and ride the fluid breath inside my bones.

When I take this ride, I clearly see that the common feeling many of us have, that our bones are solid, is an illusion. The average bone is about 20% water. What an interesting way for the body to store and utilize water! Water is somewhat useless without a functional container. If you carried water in a plastic bag, it would not be handy when you got thirsty. If you stored your drinking water inside your car's tires, you would have no access to it when you needed a drink. The human body is an incredibly functional container for its 70% water content; its spaces, cells, and tissues form the vessel for its fluid-based form. Some mysterious set of codes and signals organizes our amorphous sac-of-water bodies into a highly functional form, and in my case, these signals have been distorted allowing cancer to overgrow inside my bones.

I oscillate from sensation to science, from memoir to philosophy every time I hit a cancerous bump in the road. I try to breathe and just let it be, but I become distracted by the dissonance between what I think about the body and what mine is actually doing.

Listening to the distress signals emanating from my bones, I am reminded of my promise. Bones carry promises from one point in time to another. The mineral and fluid matrix resonates and receives signals simultaneously from the past and future. Life unfolds from all directions, not necessarily in a linear progression, into all directions through our bones. My bones will bridge the past and future assimilating food and water, the wake of desire and longing, the residues of repetition and impact, and the hardened reactions to shock and trauma. The messages of my bones will persist whether buried or burned. The call of the shadow arises from deep in the marrow. A light cannot shine in such an enclosed space, but a river can flow in the darkness. A message arises from the darkness and I hear it emerge as a ripple in the stream of my consciousness. As I adapt to the dark, I hear a distant Voice, whispering, calling out an as yet unimagined message about allowing the next moment of my life to flow into the present. The response to this call, to such profound loss, is nothing short of radical reimagination. I promised to listen.

Bonnie Gintis lives on the Winooski River in northern Vermont, exploring life with metastatic breast cancer. She is an Osteopathic Physician, an Authorized Continuum Movement Teacher, a teacher of Mindfulness, and the author of Engaging The Movement Of Life.