Daruma: The Cancer Treatment Mascot

It’s Sunday, 66 days ATN and 26 days since the start of chemo.

I think I’ve finally recovered from the last infusion round, which may have been a double whammy of “chemo flu” on days 3-5 and “keto flu” on days 7-9. Maybe the next post will be about the “Cheetos flu.”

Since I’m feeling better let’s have a little fun in this post…

Daruma: The Cancer Treatment Mascot

I think I’ll wear this to the next infusion…

Every project needs a mascot and as I was trying to figure out what shirt (not) to wear on a hot summer day a couple weeks ago the mascot for this journey became clear: the daruma.

For those of you not immersed in Japanese culture, the daruma is a wishing doll. When you start on an endeavor you get a doll and fill in one eye. Until you finish whatever it is you set out to do Mr. One-Eyed Daruma stares at you (giving you the “stink eye”). And when you finally achieve your goal you’re allowed to fill in the remaining eye.

The daruma doll is actually modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma and is traditionally red. There seem to be a number of colors available these days with each color representing the type of goal you’re after. The green daruma is supposed to be for physical health so seems appropriate for a cancer journey. Lore has it that the doll has large eyes and no arms or legs because in an attempt to attain enlightenment Bodhidharma meditated continually for nine years. During this time his arms and legs withered away. Sometime during those nine years he apparently dozed off and in a fit of rage tore off his eyelids so his meditation wouldn’t be interrupted by such a trivial thing as sleeping. According to some stories when the eyelids hit the ground they sprouted the first green tea leaves. (I’m not certain I like the idea that I’m drinking steeped eyelids as I write this post.)

There’s quite a bit of symbolism around the daruma. Its eyebrows are drawn as cranes (tsuru), which in Japanese folklore represents good fortune and longevity. The beard represents a turtle’s tail. The turtle (kame) is symbolic of wisdom, luck, protection and longevity. The “tail” requires a bit of explanation since most turtles don’t have long, hairy tails. But in Japanese mythology the minogame (giant turtle) has a tail of seaweed and algae that’s grown on its shell over its long life.

Daruma are symbolic of perseverance and are associated with the phrase “Nanakorobi yaoki” (七転び八起き), or “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” The dolls are bottom-weighted so if they fall over they’ll always right themselves. Anyone undergoing chemotherapy can appreciate the symbolism of the “down” days following an infusion and life slowly righting itself, only to be knocked down again in the next cycle. But you persevere because every day brings you a little closer to that soft glow at the end of tunnel (which is actually emanating from the radiation therapy room, the setting for the next leg of the journey.)

Daruma have a kanji character painted on their belly. Common ones are 福 (fuku – fortune, luck), 幸 (shiawase – happiness, fortune), and 叶 (kanau – to grant, to answer). My daruma is inscribed with the kanau kanji. If you have a rather large daruma (or can write really tiny kanji) you can also ink additional kanji in the areas on the left and right (where the ears would be) to provide words of encouragement or call out specific goals. I’m not so skilled at writing kanji so I’m assuming my daruma will remember he’s there to cure my cancer without needing it tattooed on his head.

I let JT have the honor of drawing in the first eye. I’ll do the second at the end of treatment 🙂.

There’s a bit of debate as to which eye you’re supposed to fill in first. Common lore is you’re supposed to fill in the left eye. But is it the daruma’s left eye, or the left eye as you’re looking at it (which would make it the daruma’s right eye)? After a bit of research I found that according to the Gunma Daruma Doll Manufacturers’ Cooperative Union the daruma’s left eye is traditionally filled in first. But they also state there’s no “correct” order of filling in the eyes. The importance is in the act of drawing the eyes, which is symbolic of opening a daruma doll’s mind’s eye, which is fully enlightened when the second eye is filled in. (I wouldn’t take too many liberties and, say, paint ears instead of eyes. The symbolism of a no-eyed one-eared daruma probably has to do with an angry Buddhist monk running after you trying to cut off your ear so he can have two.)

The daruma’s happiness at having two eyes is traditionally short-lived since at the end of the year he’s supposed to be sent to a temple and burned (along with any of his buddies who acquired their second eye during the year) in a Daruma Kyuou ceremony. I’m not sure if any of the local temples do this so Mr. Green Cancer Daruma may have a somewhat longer life. I suppose this is appropriate since assuming all goes well you’re in remission for five years and technically “cured” after that, but there’s always a chance of the cancer returning. And what’s better than having a two-eyed green daruma to keep an eye on things?

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