This little blog of mine hasn’t gotten much attention lately. It’s not that I haven’t thought about things to write. It’s more that I’ve been either too sick, or too busy out living my life to give it any attention. When I feel good these days I just don’t want to think about cancer. I don’t want to be reminded that I’m a cancer patient which includes not writing on my cancer blog. The thing about cancer though, is that it’s always there. I can never go back to “the way things were before.” Every detail of my existence has been changed by cancer’s presence in my life.
In the last young adult support group I attended (if you’re a young adult with cancer find one of these, please, and go be with other young adults with cancer, stat!) someone who has been battling cancer much longer than I have said that if she could go back and have a choice about whether or not she would have cancer that she wouldn’t change anything. She appreciated the life she’d lived with cancer as a part of it. At least one person thought she was crazy and I would expect many people to feel that way but I couldn’t really agree more. If I had to choose I wouldn’t go back and get rid of the cancer. It doesn’t mean I’d want to relive the last 9 months. I hope I never have to go through what I’ve gone through again. But I also wouldn’t give up the experience. I’ve said before that I hate thinking about cancer as a gift, because it never is. Cancer doesn’t deserve any credit. But the suffering that cancer has brought with it has changed me in profound ways that I would never want to give up. Here are some of the ways I think my life has been transformed:
I don’t think I had previously understood that the kind of suffering I’ve experienced in the last year was even possible. I now understand types of human pain that I could only have imagined before this journey began. I understand what it feels like to be betrayed by your body, to lose your health, to lose your physical identity, to face your own mortality. I know what it’s like to feel so sick, so exhausted or so overwhelmed that you wish you could just quietly fade from existence. I understand being riddled with fear, overcome by grief, and overtaken by anger, each feeling so deep it seems impossible to overcome. It’s been a year filled with some excruciatingly painful moments.
But there is a light side to all the darkness I’ve encountered. My own pain has made the pain that others are going through that much easier to see. And when we can see each other’s pain (like really, really see it) we can allow ourselves to love in a much deeper and much more powerful way. It’s basically just empathy on a whole other level and having cancer has given it to me in spades. From my husband, to my best friends, to complete strangers, I have found myself deeply connecting with the pain I see in those around me and getting and giving love in profoundly beautiful ways as a result.
On a grander scale I feel much more connected to humanity. There is a great deal of suffering in our world and when we can know that suffering like it’s our own, when we can feel it in our own bones, we can connect to everyone and everything more intensely. In this way I am deeply grateful for my suffering.
Loss of entitlement
I no longer feel entitled to things that I used to inherently believe were mine. For example, I no longer feel entitled to a long life. It’s not that I don’t want to live a long life. I do, deeply, want to live as fully as I can for as long as I can. But I don’t feel like I am owed a long life like I did before. It’s not that I didn’t know people could die young before. I just assumed that I would be one of the ones to live a long, healthy life. Now when I see someone older than 60 I think to myself: how lucky they are! They’ve lived twice my lifetime! I already feel like my 30 years on earth could be enough. I do want so much more for myself, for my life with my friends and my family, but I am also so deeply grateful and fulfilled by what I’ve already had. My life here, thus far, could be enough for me if it had to be.
I turn 31 on June 22nd and while I have always been a fan of birthdays this one feels particularly important. It’s the first time I feel deeply grateful to have survived to mark another year around the sun. And 32 doesn’t feel promised to me so I am extra grateful that I get this celebration now. These days I try to remember that THIS is really all that is promised to us, this moment, right now. This is all I can I feel entitled to and so I better make the most of it.
An uncovered fortune
This may seem unusual for a 30-year-old with cancer but cancer has reminded me how truly fortunate I am. Most of what I once complained about seems petty now. As it turns out I am an incredibly lucky person. First of all, to get to 30 without having experienced the kind of pain I’ve gone through makes me deeply grateful for the charmed life I have otherwise lived. I am old enough to be able to process the trauma I’m experiencing now. And it just so happens that I have an incredibly supportive family, deeply committed friends, a vast support network and a tough-as-nails marriage to carry me through these incredibly difficult times. I have a workplace that I love to go to, a job I love to do and an incredibly supportive set of colleagues. I live in a place where I have my choice of world-class doctors and easy access to the care I need. I could go on and on. Cancer pushed me over the edge of a cliff but as it turns out I had a strong safety net waiting to catch me when I finally landed at the deep, dark bottom of this journey. And the suffering and pain I have been through has reminded me of what is most important. My priorities are crystal clear to me now and I have little space in my life to sweat the small stuff anymore.
Living with less fear
Perhaps most importantly this past year has taught me to be less afraid of suffering. We often do everything we can, understandably so, to protect ourselves from pain, myself included. Yet, I try to remind myself that there is a great deal to be gained from pain. Our suffering can make us stronger, bolder, more passionate, and if we allow it, our suffering can tear us open, making room for a love, compassion and connection greater than anything we could have imagined.
In other news: My LAST chemo is this Thursday and I could cry I am so happy. I thought for sure I would lose all my hair this time but as you can see I still have a good bit of it left. This chemo has been strange so fingers crossed it doesn’t decide to abandon me all at once after this last one. After I recover I celebrate my birthday, go on (much deserved, in my opinion) vacation for a few weeks and then come back after the 4th of July for 6.5 weeks of daily radiation. I should be done, done with treatments around August 20th but as I’ve learned you’re never really “done” with cancer so I am just waiting to see what’s in store for me after that. Many thanks, as always, to everyone who has sent me messages, letters, care packages and love. I count you all among the reasons I am forever grateful for this crazy life.