I hate cancer.
Even though it’s been ten years since the Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma which almost killed me went away, I still despise cancer with a fervour. I hate what it does to people – physically, and also emotionally and socially. Cancer makes people really, really afraid, and people act very strangely when they’re scared. They run away when they know they need to draw close. They say dumb things when they know what they really need to do is just listen. They talk with a person who has cancer about anything and everything else under the sun other than cancer and all the things it brings with it, when they know full well what they really need to do is just sit in the room with the person who has cancer and just talk about cancer and all the things it brings with it, until they’re both done. I’ve spend the last few years trying to find ways of having conversations with different people about cancer without having them run from the room waving their arms and screaming, or curling up in a corner with their hands over their ears babbling “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”, and I’m still working on it.
Apart from the very strange behaviour it causes, the other thing I hate about cancer is it changes people. Not all the changes are bad or undesirable, but the very fact something patently unwanted is forcing those changes can be an issue for many people. One of the greatest challenges can be deciding which of the changes cancer brings with it to accept, and which to defy. Some will be determined not to allow cancer to change or define them, to the extent of resisting those changes which could actually help cancer go away and perhaps never come back. I’ve known sweet, intelligent folks who refused to give up smoking or change their diet after their diagnosis – not because they were incapable of change, but because they stubbornly resisted the changes cancer forced upon them. For many of us this kind of thinking defies logic, but when you have cancer and everyone is telling you “You need to fight this!”, and the only way you can think of to fight it is to not let it stop you doing the things you enjoy, then it actually makes perfect sense.
The areas in which change becomes obvious when cancer comes are rarely a surprise – they’re often issues the person is fully aware needs addressing and cancer is merely the catalyst. I learned things from having cancer I wish there was some other way for me to learn, but the fact is I probably wouldn’t have learned them any other way. I like to think most people are smarter than I am and would be willing to think about things in their life which need changing way before something like cancer comes along and makes the change necessary. In fact, I’m writing this in the hope you are a lot smarter than I am.
Here are 5 things both I and most people I’ve met who had cancer learned and changed – things you don’t have to wait until you have cancer to learn or change.
1. Sometimes, you come first. Don’t wait until you have cancer or some other health crisis to discover you cannot afford to neglect your own physical and mental health. You must make yourself a priority or you’ll find out the hard way nobody will look after you if you don’t do it first. Eat properly, get enough rest, and take time out. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you get a medal for martyring yourself, women with young children especially.
2. You know your own body. If your instinct, gut or intuition is telling you something is wrong with you, don’t take no for an answer. I was sent away by my doctor several times over the months leading up to my diagnosis, dismissed as “working too hard”. I knew something was just not right. I should’ve changed doctors and gotten another opinion months before I ended up admitted to hospital with a grade 3B tumour the size of a saucer. It’s a story I hear too often to believe it’s just me.
3. Sometimes, you need other people. In our culture, independence is lauded as a sign of maturity and success. To need others is to be a drain, a suck and a failure. When you’re sick, one of the hardest lessons to learn can be how to allow others to care for you, practically and emotionally. The problem isn’t with the actual weakness and vulnerability – it’s with thinking weakness and vulnerability are bad and wrong. The older generation particularly are wont to consider telling people close to them about their illnesses or asking for help as “making a fuss”. Learning how to let others to care and support you when you really need it is part of healthy human relationships.
4. Think about your legacy. Any time and energy we spend preparing ourselves and our family for a life beyond our existence is never wasted. In thinking about and planning the legacy we want to leave our loves ones – financial, emotional, relational and spiritual – we establish a long, strong trail of of evidence of who and what really mattered to us in life. And when we’re not here any more, this is the only thing the people who love us will want to know.
5. We just don’t have that kind of time. Literally every person I’ve ever known with cancer reports a heightened awareness of the true brevity of life, and an appreciation of what their priorities and values are. I find people who haven’t been threatened with losing their life in some way find it hard to appreciate the importance of living in the moment and just getting things done and said. Things like grudges and unforgiveness totally lose their potency and importance when you subtract the element of slow passing time. This idea that we have plenty of time to do the important stuff is an illusion, a luxury and a lie. If you live as if you only have today to live your best day, it changes everything. Everything.