“There must be more than three! What about a Top 10 list—you know, like David Letterman? How can there only be three lessons you learned from cancer?”
OK: like David Letterman, I too can create a Top 10 list of the things I learned from cancer. The first few delivered with a flourish, a drum roll, and a “ba-dum-bum” after each delivery. Here we go [cue drum roll]:
10) If there’s blood in the toilet after you go to the bathroom, don't ignore it. See a doctor.
9) When prepping for a colonoscopy, remember that jell-o is considered a clear fluid, and that hot jell-o is better (and faster) than cold.
8) Before accepting assurances that it is “not really that bad,” ask your surgeon if HE or SHE has ever had a colonoscopy.
7) Beware of smiling radiation technologists with bags of barium solution.
6) While in the hospital, advise your visitors to refrain from bringing reptiles as gifts.
5) When recovering from surgery, beware of uproariously comical things and their hazardous effects on abdominal staples.
4) When entering hospital, pick out pyjamas before you’re admitted, or you’re going to be stuck with whatever your wife buys you.
Considering that each of these reflects an actual moment in my cancer journey, these points are not entirely irrelevant. However, it is in the remaining three points that the crux of my experience lies. These three lessons were foundational to my negotiating a healthy response to critical illness and to the underlying genetic syndrome that caused my disease. And they are, in my opinion, foundational to surviving critical and chronic circumstances in life. These three deserve a more thorough treatment than a mere enumerated statements can give.
First: I am not my disease. This tenet seems to strike a chord with all the friends I’ve spoken to who’ve also experienced critical or chronic illness—cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and a host of other maladies. The same idea reverberates in conversations with those who’ve suffered critical life events such as divorce, job loss, drug use, or incarceration. The take-away is this: I am not the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Nor am I the worst thing I’ve ever done, for that matter, or even the best. I am these things, but no single event defines me.
Throughout the course of my cancer journey, I met many people who were tasked with helping me. The ones who did help—the heroes in my life—were the ones who approached me as a whole person: a person with hopes, dreams, and aspirations, with a life to live in the midst of disease and beyond. The villains were the ones who saw me as the personification of my disease: a problem to be fixed, one more job to be done. I learned from cancer that I have the right to caregivers who devise treatment plans and provide support based on who I am rather than simply on the ailment I have.
Second: in times of crisis, I need to embrace the community that is around me. As a male, I have a tendency to pull away from people when I have needs or hurts or when I experience failures. No doubt there are factors of personal temperament which contribute to that disposition; however, the fact that people usually nod and look knowingly at me when I say this suggests a commonality of experience. At any rate, I am one who is hesitant to say, “I am afraid” or “I need help” or “I have no idea what to do next.”
That isolating factor is compounded by the fact that, when people encounter others with diseases like cancer, they tend to pull away. Not because they do not care or do not want to be helpful, but because they genuinely do not know what to do or say to someone who was fine yesterday, but today has cancer.
Nonetheless, I believe community is the single greatest resource that we have when dealing with cancer. And I can say with confidence that no one—not you, not me, not even Superman in his Fortress of Solitude—is better off alone in the midst of uncertainty and despair, pain and struggle, than in a community of those who love and support them. Of course, support means different things to different people, and the introverts among us may shudder at the prospect of constant or intrusive interaction, but I am not referring to always being with people; rather I am referring to there always being someone available for us. I learned from cancer that when I am at the end of my rope, when I lack the strength to go on, I need community to hold me up through my dark times.
Lastly, I need to embrace the fact that personal wholeness is more important than physical health. This I learned not only from my personal experience, but through watching a good friend die of pancreatic cancer. In the eight months between when he was diagnosed and when he died, I saw cancer take everything physical from him: his body and his mind. But through it all, there was something that the ravages of cancer could never touch: who he had become as a person, who he was as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and a friend. I ached as I watched him die, but I marveled at how his personhood—the man he’d become through all the moments of his life, the healthy years and life-and-death struggle alike—was something that could never be taken from him.
I know that wholeness is an idea that means many things to many people. For some, it is a sense of personal integrity; for others it is being in right relationship with other people. For those who are religious, it is reconciliation with God. It is not my place here to tell you where truth lies, although I believe that it can be found if you look for it. What I will say is that we all have a length to our days, and when those days are up and we face our end, all we have left is who we have become. And it is in that “becoming” that we can find our wholeness.
I have learned a lot from cancer, and I’m sure it still has a lot to teach me. But these three lessons have become foundational to my life.
His latest book, What I Learned from Cancer, is available in electronic form at his payhip.com site: http://bit.ly/wilfc-ebook. Physical copies of the book are available at the Prompters to Life web store, where shipping on copies of the soft cover edition is always free (except to the international space station). To order a paper copy of the book visit: http://prompterstolife.com/shoppers