In spite of how many times you may have heard otherwise, cancer is most decidedly not a gift. Even so, there are important and useful lessons to be learned from it.
I want to tell you about the most important lesson I’ve learned from the darkness of the cancer experience. I think it might be useful to you. I’m struggling with how to express it, because it’s hard to do so without sounding trite. But I’ll try.
From Unknown to Known
My breast cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2016 instantly encapsulated me in a dark dread of the unknown.
I had no idea how bad the cancer was, whether the end of my days was coming fast, or what I’d have to go through to be treated. What I knew was far outweighed by what I didn’t know.
I grasped my lifelines – my husband, my closest family members – and held tight as I was buffeted by this instant and unremitting fear.
The unknown receded somewhat over the next few weeks. I got the necessary biopsy (and fainted during it), received a call with the expected results (which I handled calmly), scheduled an appointment with a highly esteemed surgeon (which went calmly enough until the part where I cried at the prospect of losing my hair).
I knew my cancer type (ER+PR+HER-) and thought I knew the stage (but after surgery, the stage was upgraded). I knew my treatment plan. I went through additional tests that affirmed the cancer hadn’t spread throughout my body. I knew that I had a good post-treatment prognosis.
I saw the oncologist who would manage my chemotherapy. A nurse held a teaching appointment so I knew what to expect from chemotherapy, which was first up on my treatment plan.
It helped to know these things, even though a good deal of what I learned was scary. The claustrophobic sense of being trapped in darkness receded as I learned more. But an overwhelming dread persisted, quite out of proportion to the reality of the situation.
I needed something more to help me with that.
Releasing Unreasonable Dread
I found a gifted social worker, so empathically attuned to what I expressed that it felt like she already knew me, and had been sent to help. With her support, I figured out what the dread was about. It came from much earlier in my life, when vulnerability was dangerous, when I found safety by protecting myself from the threats surrounding me. It came from having seen the images of emaciated, bald women who were Holocaust victims. Those images have haunted me since I first encountered them in childhood, and they haunt me still.
Recognizing that the present threat had activated old and unrelated fears allowed me to face the current situation more calmly, to release the dread, and to the recognition that I certainly had the resources I needed get through the immediate challenges. I could see and fully accept that my present circumstances were in no way matched to the degree of dread they’d invited into my life. I could revoke the invitation and let the dread go on its way.
An Unfinished Process
It turned out though that releasing fear and overwhelming dread is not a one-and-done event. They always respond to another invitation to return!
That next invitation came from my post-surgical pathology report. That’s when I found out what my cancer stage really was — IIIB.
This change meant my risk of later having a terminal recurrence (a metastasis which is often treatable but not curable) was much higher than I’d thought.
Fear and dread settled in with me for several weeks, until I finally figured out the lesson I needed to learn. These thoughts lead me to that lesson.
No one knows how much longer they have to live.
I might have many years left, or only a few.
No one knows what they will die of.
I have a pretty good idea of what I’m likely to die of, but I still don’t know.
I had to allow what is frightening about this awareness to flow through me, to live with it without getting caught in it.
These understandings were not the important lesson, though they’re definitely a big part of it.
This is the Key Lesson
Live each day as if it truly matters. Because it does.
This means making the choices and taking the actions that come from my deepest, most dearly held beliefs and values, from what I want most in my life, from the legacy I hope to leave.
This means making room each day for joy, delight, and love.
This means committing myself to deep self-care, so I can deeply care for others.
This means choosing carefully what to say yes to, and what to say no to.
Has Fear Been Permanently Banished?
I have not yet met anyone who’s had cancer who doesn’t fear it’s return. We’re all subject to the risk of recurrence, and to the fear that this reality brings into our lives. We’d be in denial of the truth if we were never afraid!
The fear even has a function, prompting us to check in with our health care providers if unusual symptoms come up and last too long.
I’ve had two episodes in recent months with unusual symptoms that lasted a longer than I liked. I got through them with a minimum of fear. I managed to apply the lesson I learned while waiting to find out that all was okay. No excessive fear. No dread. No wasted days.
No, cancer is not a gift. No one should have to go through it. But even in the darkest depths of the cancer experience, there are important and useful lessons to be learned.