Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What cancer has taught me

A brush with death does not make you a better person. I can vouch for that personally. Most of us probably know people who have survived a serious accident or illness, and who have come through it essentially unchanged. The most emotionally resilient among us, in fact, often seem unaffected by their trauma. This is taken as a sign of strength. Who we are, what we believe and how we live are deeply programmed into us. What passes for normalcy is typically where we instinctively gravitate once an emergency has passed. We seek the familiarity of again being the person we believe ourselves to have been.

Many people are happy to never look back; emotional and/or physical sequelae may prevent it. Others are simply not very reflective. Nevertheless, the question remains for us all: What have you learned from your experience? The presumption of our culture is that pain and suffering are pointless and should be avoided at all costs. It is counter-cultural to reflect on where we’ve been and how our misfortune affects how we view the world. It forces us to slow down and to go inward. If we are not asked the question by others, we should at least ask it of ourselves. It’s possible we might illuminate something important about who we are just by attempting an answer.

So here, in no particular order, are five thoughts on what being diagnosed and treated for metastatic melanoma has taught me:

1. I am not meant to waste my cancer. The word cancer remains one of the most dreaded words in the English language. It focuses the mind, and tightens the chest. Suddenly, attention is paid to everything those with cancer say and do—for a while, at least. This affords us a special opportunity to both receive grace and to grant it. God has a purpose in permitting me to get cancer. It has been a gift in that it has drawn me closer to him, and it has opened me up to other people. To treat it strictly as an enemy is to waste that gift.
2. Embracing fear produces courage. We all will die. The only way to come to terms with what it will be like to leave this world is to think about it. We fear what we don’t understand, so it helps to learn something about what comes after this life in order to prepare ourselves. The disease itself no longer frightens me as it did as I’ve come to understand it better. Embracing fear doesn’t make it go away, but does allow something constructive to be done with it. On my best days, I feel like a lion.
3. Connecting with others and communicating at a meaningful level cannot be faked. Some people know how to express their affection and concern, or at least know enough to make an attempt, and others don’t. A health crisis is guaranteed to separate your friends into sheep and goats. Nothing takes the place of simple, honest, personal interaction. Those who stand with you in times of trouble are friends for life.
4. Introspection is a nice place to visit, but you can’t live there. The world keeps on spinning, and it’s healthy to get out there and do something when you’re ready. As my health has returned, I’ve written less on this blog about what I’m thinking and feeling and more about what I’m doing. When you’re down in the mud, it’s easy just to wallow. The trick is to find the right balance between examining your life and then actually living it.
5. Seek out others who need help or encouragement. This is just a variant of the Golden Rule. Having been the grateful recipient of countless acts of kindness, I want to do more of the same for others. There is no shortage of opportunities. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When times are good, there never seems to be enough time. My response: make it.

Learning from misfortune is the easy part. Taking what we learn and making something of it is much harder. That’s where I am now. I know there is more that I am meant to do in this world, but I’m not sure exactly what it is. My journey continues.


Tom Hess said...

Learning from misfortune is the easy part. Taking what we learn and making something of it is much harder. That’s where I am now. ... ME TOO.

wags said...

Well put, Peter. Through your continuing blog you're providing a road map of sorts for those of us who also may suffer misfortune as we age--and most of us will. Thanks. I continue to check it daily.

Rick, the Zone Captain said...

Peter - thank you again for you insights. I do volunteer work at a pediatric palliative and hospice care facility and working alongside families with dying children face very similar issues. Your inspired writings are making a difference.