Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #25 When Dignity Wears A Size Smaller

A few months ago, I applied for a one-off government payment we were eligible for, which, unbeknown to me, invited an audit of past payments going back several years. After looking at my records, the social security department decided I was liable to repay a pension I received whilst my husband and I were separated for six months, so instead of getting a cheque in the mail for a few hundred dollars, I opened my mail to find a collection letter for several thousand dollars. Stunned, I called the agency for an explanation. The agency officer was patient, but firm. “You didn’t abide by the child support agreement, which stipulates you must endeavour to recover by any means possible money owed to you in child support by the other party. You broke the agreement, so you have to pay back your pension.”

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

I asked to be allowed to appeal at a higher level.

Eventually, I was phoned up by another officer from the government agency to discuss my appeal. I explained again how my husband and I were separated but he had no income for that time, so he couldn’t pay me, so there seemed to be no point pursuing him. In fact, my husband had been very unwell, and if she cared to check his records, she’d find he too was on benefits from the government, because he was too sick to work. I felt then I didn’t want to further exacerbate his condition by having a solicitor badger him for child support.

The officer was empathic, but unmoved. “You broke the agreement, you simply have to pay us back.”

“Let me get this straight. So because my husband didn’t pay me a couple of hundred dollars, you’re going to make me pay back a couple of thousand?”

Up until then, I’d been trying to retain a semblance of dignity. Despite my stoicism, my voice began to break. I started sobbing, still with the officer on the other end of the phone.

“Hold on, hold on. Just back up a little.” She said. “Can you tell me, off the record, exactly what was going on around that time? I get the idea there’s more to the story here than what you’ve told me.”

I didn’t want to tell her what happened, but it was the only way to make her understand.

“Well…I had cancer in 2003. I got better, but my husband didn’t. He became an alcoholic. I couldn’t stop him drinking, so I threw him out. We got back together, but he still couldn’t stop drinking and I started having panic attacks, so I had to ask him to leave again. We went to counselling, but while we were there he told me he didn’t want to be married any more, but he agreed to go to rehab. While we were waiting for a place to come up in rehab, we lived under the same roof but fought every day. One day I followed him around the house yelling at him about how he’d let us all down and why couldn’t he just man up and take responsibility when at one point he turned around with such desperation on his face – I’d never seen such despair in a human being before. In that moment, I knew if I didn’t let him go, I’d come home one day and find him hanging from a tree.

“The short answer is I didn’t try to collect child support because my alcoholic husband couldn’t pay and was suicidal, and I was determined not to behave like a victim. I just wanted him to get better, and I just wanted to get on with my life. ”

It hurt having to tell her that story. I wanted to tell the story of our happy reconciliation, our present health and wholeness, how we paid up our debts and started fresh in a new town where nobody knew that victim story. In telling her about our unhappy past I felt like I was right back there with the pain and shame of being abandoned, broke and broken. We are not those people any more. But in an instant that was me again.

Thank God, she heard me. After hearing the truth about what happened, she sent my appeal up the chain and the agency cancelled the debt.

—–

Victim stories are strange things. They can be painful, but they can also have utility when getting something you want or need. I get a plethora of victim stories every time I list something on Freecycle. It’s awful for me, because then I have to decide who gets my washing machine – the single mum, the bankrupt boyfriend, the old-age pensioner? I don’t want or like having that kind of power, and I don’t enjoy having people tell me their problems in order to validate my generosity toward them.

Because I know how it feels.

When genuinely bad things happen to us like cancer, the way we are seen and see ourselves can change. We can find ourselves fighting others perceptions and projections, even if it’s just in our own head. When I was staying at a hostel in Sydney near the hospital where I was having radiotherapy, I remember walking down the hallway and passing the brass sponsor plaques beside each door. I hated those plaques. They were like little monuments to the slow, incremental death of my dignity. I didn’t want to be reminded every morning I was a charity recipient. I was a charity recipient, and thank God I was, but any sense I was being pitied just repelled me. I didn’t want to be seen or treated like I was less than simply by virtue of my circumstances.

When we have cancer, victim is a card we’re handed whether we like it or not. It’s up to us whether we play it. Sometimes, just like people who need washing machines or radiotherapy patients who need somewhere to stay in the big city, we have to play our card to access what we want or need. Sometimes we simply tear that card up and throw it away in disgust. Sometimes, as with me and the social security officer, the card is forced from our pocket and into plain view, and we have to use it even if we’d rather not. Or perhaps we can flip it, and try pass it off as something else entirely.

You can only have no much control over how others see you, and the same amount of control over what actually happens to you. When you have cancer, that control can be diminished, but it could be you’re prepared to let some go, if you think it’ll serve you. Some may pity you because it makes them feel superior, but this is rare. And there can be a degree of increased control, even power, in making yourself appear smaller. Regardless of how you play your victim card, the fact is nobody can ever remove your dignity from you by force. But you may find yourself buying it a size smaller, just for now.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #24 Funny Things People Say When You Have Cancer

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Sometimes. I’ve found however what doesn’t kill you can still scare you pretty witless in the meantime. I don’t want to be stronger one day – I want to feel better, now. Don’t tell me one day – if I don’t die – I’ll be harder, meaner and braver. Just give me a hug instead.

There’s always someone worse off than you.

I have cancer. That means I’m probably worse off than you are, at the very least. So that’s actually true. I know what you mean though. However, I’m not the sort of person who becomes excited or inspired thinking about someone else who has something worse than cancer. If a person comforted by such thoughts exists, I think cancer is probably the least of their problems.

God is trying to teach you something.

You telling me this doesn’t help. Even if it’s true, which we have no way of knowing, you saying it still doesn’t help. Even if I could know for certain God or the Universe was teaching me a lesson through my having cancer, and I knew what the lesson was, and I was actively participating in the learning of it, and even if I was about to graduate it with honours and a big old handshake from God Him-or-Herself, you telling me this still doesn’t help. It really sounds like it might help, I appreciate that. It really does sound like a deep and spiritual thing to say, because we can’t really understand God or the Universe or cancer, and lumping them all together in the same sentence seems like it would probably help, but it doesn’t. Plus, if God really is trying to teach me something by giving me cancer, then God is probably a jerk, in which case I’m not going to particularly care about whatever it is He/She might be trying to teach me. So please, allow me to hold onto my childish fantasy about God being a Very Nice Deity who loves me and doesn’t want to hurt me, which allows me to keep praying to Him/Her and ask Him if He’d/She’d mind helping me with my abject fear of dying of cancer. Thanks!

Things could be worse.

No, they fucking could not. Please leave now.

You don’t look much like someone who has cancer.

You don’t look much like a tactless jerk. Just goes to show.

Which breast was it in?

You know, despite what you may have been led to believe, not all cancer is breast cancer. So now please stop staring at my boobs.

My friend/cousin/uncle/neighbour had that, and they died.

Strangely, that information also isn’t helpful.

Just pray, and God will heal you.

Tell you what – you pray, and I’ll have chemo. *Bases covered*.

—–

In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m being facetious. Even though people have quoted these cliche’s to me, I’ve never said these things back again, unless you count in my head.

Look, the fact is, as hard as it is for us to have cancer, it’s also really, really hard for the people around us. They don’t know what to do or say, and the truth is, apart from producing copious amounts of both lasagne and cliche’s, there isn’t much they can do or say. Standing around while someone you care about suffers sucks. People always, always mean well, even if the things they say don’t make sense, aren’t very helpful or offend us outright. Don’t be angry. Just smile. Take the lasagne, and go punch a pillow. And as far as it’s possible for you to do it, keep your relationships as one of those places cancer can’t touch.

*****

If you love someone who has cancer, I’ve written a beginners guide of things family and friends can say and do for someone who has cancer. Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer is available as an e-book and in print. Please click here for details on how to order, or visit the Store link in the top menu.

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #23 No More Dramas

No more dramas.

Promise yourself right now – I solemnly vow I will no longer create dramas for myself.

No more dramas to get what you want, and no more to avoid what you don’t.

No dramas to make people think you have something worth worrying about happening in your life, no dramas to actually create something worth worrying about.

I will not, tell yourself, use dramas as a way of making life seem meaningful and interesting. I will just go and actually do something meaningful and interesting instead.

No more “hero” dramas and no more “victim” dramas. No more “too much” dramas, and no more “not enough” dramas. No more “you hate me” or “I hate you” dramas. No more dramas about the sad, sorry past, and no more dramas about the big, scary future. No more “my life is crap, and yours is so much better” dramas. We all have so much to be grateful for.

Image credit: iStockphoto
Image credit: iStockphoto

No more dramas. No more sending all that energy down a hole. No more head-miles on things that can’t be changed. No more choosing, then choosing, then choosing again, and then forgetting where you started making choices and what the original problem even was you were trying to solve. No more talking about it on and on until it becomes something else it never was and didn’t need to ever become.

No, no more dramas. No more for you. That’s enough now, because time is short, and there’s so much to be done. No more dramas. That’s all over, forever. When you’re ready to stop, we’re ready too – ready to come and walk beside you, and with you, go anywhere you go and never leave your side. No more dramas, just promise yourself. You don’t need them any more.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #22 You’re Going To Make It

This isn’t going to last forever, my friend.

It came from nowhere, didn’t it? It came from inside you, and not from the outside, like scary things are supposed to. They’re supposed to be under the bed, around the corner, in the closet, in that spooky house across the street, with that car careening down the road. Scary things are supposed to be avoidable – don’t look, don’t go there, don’t follow along with that person or do that stupid thing, and there you go – there’s nothing to be scared of. Scary things aren’t supposed to be inside your body. Scary things aren’t supposed to be made of you. The nowhere cancer came from was inside you – how can this be? How could you not know? How could you not stop it? How can you not make it go away by just avoiding it, or crossing the street or closing the closet? How did this come to have its beginning in you?

Tell me, and I’ll stop doing it. Tell me, because everyone keeps asking me “So, do you know what caused it?” I know they want to avoid the scary thing too. How can I tell them where it came from? Just how do you explain that?

And then there’s what happens when you stop being scared, and you start to get used to the fact you have cancer. There’s what happens when you’ve been all the way through shock and terror and the realisation you could die, and out the other side. When your body decides there’s no point pushing all that energy into emotions any more, and makes up it’s mind that your calories and serotonin would be better used doing other things like keeping you calm, or making healthy cells, or repairing the effects of chemotherapy. And you wonder why you don’t get happy or sad anymore, and why you can’t stay focussed on a movie or an interesting project, and you start to wonder if this what it feels like to start dying.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

And then there’s what happens when you begin to wonder what on earth is real and right and true any more, and what you can trust and what you can’t, and what this means about the way things are in this world, and the kinds of things that can happen to people, even good people. And you think about the future, but you can’t see it the way you used to, in your head or your imagination, or where ever it is that hope is made. And you wonder, “is this a sign?” Does it mean you won’t live to see your graduation, or your wedding, or their graduation or their wedding, because you just don’t dream like that any more? And you wonder, is this what survival means – living the rest of your life with an erased imagination, with shallow dreams, with hope that only extends in minutes and hours and days, and not in years and lifetimes?

This feels like it’s going to last forever, my friend. But it isn’t. You’re reading this because it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been there – and here I am. The flat, dreamless existence you’re dragging yourself through now will one day be a memory. This isn’t going to last forever. You’re going to make it. You’ll make it home. To the graduation and the wedding. To the birth, to the first day of school, to the birthdays and the holidays and the cake and the photos and the laughter. You’ll be there. I promise you. You will be there.

This isn’t going to last forever, my friend. You’re going to make it.

(Dedicated to my little strong, fragile, beautiful friend 🙂 )

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #21, Curing “Burnt Toast” Syndrome

Before I found out I had cancer, I presented to my local chemist with some puzzling symptoms, one of which was a terrible pain in the ball of my right foot. The pharmacist behind the counter diagnosed me immediately with gout – an accumulation of uric acid crystals in the joint. Horrified at finding out I had something with such an unglamorous name, I asked him what caused it.

“Burnt Toast Syndrome.”

“I beg your pardon?” I imagined I’d contracted a terrible disease caused by too many toxic enzymes in my overcooked breakfast. “What exactly is Burnt Toast Syndrome?”

“Burnt Toast Syndrome” he explained, “is when someone takes responsibility for the happiness of everyone else, and always puts themselves last on the list. In other words, I think you always takes the “burnt piece of toast” so nobody else ever has to feel inconvenienced, disappointed or unhappy. Am I right?”

He was right.

Burnt Toast Syndrome didn’t give me cancer. But after I found out I had cancer, it became pretty clear Burnt Toast Syndrome wasn’t going to help me get better.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

I had to learn it was important for me to take the “freshest piece of toast” more often, and leave the burnt one for someone else, because sometimes others need to learn when to put someone else’s wants and needs before theirs.  I also needed to make my own happiness and comfort a priority as well as that of my family and friends, and stop seeing personal sacrifice and self-denial as noble, or a sign of my love. Teaching others to respect my health and happiness wasn’t wrong, and allowing the people in my life to experience disappointment or inconvenience as I moved myself up my list of personal priorities wasn’t selfish or bad. Having cancer was an opportunity for me to learn to practice self-nurture, because I could hardly expect others to take better care of me than I was prepared to take of myself.

In fact, making martyrs of ourselves may be one of the factors which promote ideal conditions for problems like cancer. If you constantly put yourself at the bottom of the list, you’re bound to become sick – if not physically, then perhaps in some other way.

You don’t get a different result by continuing to make the exact same choices. Today, it’s time to cure yourself of “Burnt Toast Syndrome”. Looking after yourself properly and partaking of good food and healthy, fulfilling activity isn’t wrong, selfish or bad. Listen to what your body is telling you. Something you’ve been doing isn’t working. Time for a change.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #20 Make Cancer Pay

This, my friend, is the day I want you to turn it around.

So many things you can’t change right now. You’re so deep in it, those things you have no control over are all you can think about.

I have cancer. Things will never be the same again.

I know it seems unfair, this heightened sense you’re experiencing of what is and really isn’t important. But honestly? this is how we’re supposed to live. For now. For today. But we don’t. Only now you’re realising how short time is, how little time you have.

Don’t lose that. I promise you, keeping that one thing will change your life.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

Today, my friend, today we flip this.

You have the following choice before you, and you can, and must, make it. You will make it, whether you mean to or not.

Will cancer be the worst thing which ever happened to you? Or will cancer be something else?

Will you give over that kind of power to cancer? Because it is a kind of power, making something the worst, the hardest, the toughest, the most destructive. When you speak this, believe this, you give cancer power.

Power, frankly, it doesn’t deserve.

Cancer can kill your body. But it cannot kill who you are, what you are.

You have the choice – you can think about what cancer takes away from you, or you can think about what you can take away from cancer.

Cancer comes to rob, steal and destroy. It makes you pay – with your body, with your mind, with your well-being and with your future.

But today, it changes. Today you make up your mind that from now on – cancer pays.

Make it famous. Cancer hates it when you talk about it. Talk about cancer without shame or fear, or even guilt because of anything you might have done to make it come. Cancer doesn’t want to be famous – it wants to stay nameless, secretive and mysterious. It needs these so it can infect you and everyone you know with fear, which kills you all in a hundred awful ways. Make cancer famous, and take away it’s safety and anonymity.

Make it smaller. Cancer isn’t bigger than you, so don’t behave as if it is. Laugh at it’s expense. You have a greater capacity to get rid of cancer than it has to get rid of you. Even if it takes your body, it becomes extinct. You always win. Make cancer smaller, because it’s never your greater, never even your equal.

Make it normal. Yes, normal. One in two folks are diagnosed with cancer – so why are we still acting as if having cancer is rare, unique and special? Something that happens to every second person isn’t special. The myth of cancer thrives on us continuing to believe it’s an unlucky anomaly. One in two people means it’s less to do with being unlucky, and more to do with being human. The more we behave as if cancer is part of life, the less special and more impotent it becomes. Make cancer normal, and take away its power.

Make it pay. Use cancer in ways it never counted on. Cancer isn’t a weakness – it’s a unique skill set. Cancer teaches you stuff you can use to help others beat it, or at the very least, negotiate it. Knowing what the inside of the cancer world looks like opens doors for you, doors you can jimmy open and shepherd others through, doors that one day won’t exist because people like you will wrench them off their hinges and throw them away. Get yourself on a platform because of cancer, and use it to tell people not to believe the myths and the lies. Get your photo in the paper, and tell people your own amazing story. Make cancer pay, and take every damn shred of fame and airtime you can screw out of it to wage your campaign against it.

Today, we turn this thing around. Make up your mind to think less about what cancer can take away from you, and begin to strategise about what you can take away from it. Make it into a skill set. Make it come out into the light. Make it clear and obvious to anyone who’ll listen exactly what cancer has done, and also, what it can never do.

Make it smaller, make it normal, make it pay.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #19 We Feel It All

When you’ve had cancer, people assume you’re tougher than most.

Or at the very least, tougher than you were.

“You’re amazing. You’re so strong. I could never go through what you’ve been through.”

But people do go through it. All kinds of people go through cancer. Strong, weak, ready, or not – everyone diagnosed must go through it. We don’t have a choice.

iStock_000011027500XSmall
image credit: iStockphoto

Folks who haven’t been through cancer can only imagine what kinds of things we actually have to experience. Knowing you have cancer and could die is scary and often painful, for sure. But some of the things they have to do to you to get rid of it are even scarier, and more painful.

This week, I was listening to a twelve year-old cancer coaching client tell me what for him was the scariest parts.

“Hearing it was cancer was scary. But the worst parts were when they gave me a bone marrow biopsy, and when they put in my central line (the tube in his chest through which chemotherapy goes). Mum, they’ll knock me out when they take out the central line, won’t they?”

I remember my bone marrow biopsy. “This won’t hurt” the technician assured me as she pushed the needle with all her might into my hipbone. I felt a grinding sensation, and it hurt.

I remember after I’d been in remission for twelve months and some of my CT scan results came back with a report contradicting the scans. My oncologist rang to clarify. “I need to know if you made a mistake on this report before I send this woman back to hospital and they stick a foot long needle into her chest to find out if you made a mistake or not.” I closed my eyes, nausea and panic chasing each other up my throat. They’d stuck a foot long needle into my chest before, twice. Both times I was fully conscious. They never told me I’d feel like the people who were there to fix me were trying to murder me.

I now have a letter from my doctor which says if they need to stick a foot-long needle into my chest again, I need to be unconscious when they do it.

We seem tougher, we folks who’ve had cancer. Perhaps we don’t get as scared by roller coasters or as upset when people do stupid things to us as we used to. It looks like strength, but it’s more likely to be distraction. We’re not frightened by the prospect of hanging upside down strapped into an amusement park ride, because our particular universe now includes the possibility of having foot long needles driven into various parts of our body whilst we’re told to hold still and this won’t hurt, by people who claim to be helping us and not actually murdering us. Our particular reality encompasses now the greatest threat to our life coming from inside our own cells, not from being hit by a buses or bitten by sharks. What looks like strength is really just an expanded view of the terrible things which can really happen to people, and realising they can come from places that are very, very close by, and from people you like and trust who will smile and say “this won’t hurt.”

With and after cancer, we’re still terrified. Sometimes even more terrified than we were before. Terrified by the possibility of things happening most people cannot even conceive of.

“But you could be hit by a bus tomorrow”, folks say, trying to allay what they consider to be our unfounded fears of the illness recurring, or the very painful, intrusive things which we must permit to be done to us as we’re trying to make cancer go away . They say this because being afraid of being hit by a bus is, in their mind, an unjustifiable fear. I imagine this fear is a little more justifiable for someone who has actually been hit by a bus.

It looks like a phobia, but its not a phobia if it’s actually happened, and there is any probability it could happen again.

What happens when the bus, the road and the accident are inside your own body?

People often assume because we’ve had cancer, we’re stronger and tougher than we were. The truth is we may be more resilient in some areas, but may actually be more scared and much weaker in others. Our confidence in our body, and our ability to simply assume bad things just won’t happen to us, may be shaken and never return, but our confidence to ride roller coasters and our resilience in inclement circumstances may be increased.

“My body let me down. It may do again. If it does, scary things will happen to me, and I won’t be able to control those. But time is short, and roller coasters are fun.”

Our tolerance for crap may be decreased. Our willingness to allow ourselves to be subject to pain, abuse and attack may be diminished. This can look like weakness, and it can look like strength, and it’s probably both. It’s also self-preservation.

“My marriage is just bloody hard work. It shouldn’t be this hard. I’m worth better than this.”

Once you’ve felt pain right through to your marrow, you’ll do anything to avoid that kind of pain ever happening again.

We who’ve had cancer look tough. We seem tough. But trust me – we feel it all.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #18 Cancer Winners and Losers, Fighters and Survivors

One of the hardest things about surviving cancer is realising you can’t actually take much credit for it.

I know this flies directly in the face of the “cancer hero” myth, but it’s true. Let’s just be honest – when it comes to cancer there are only two possible outcomes, and cancer survivors by default end up with the only outcome which ever requires an explanation.

And survivors are asked for the explanation for how we survived cancer whether we have one or not.

And if we don’t have one, someone else is sure to provide us with one they just happen to have handy.

Because it’s assumed we “won our fight against cancer” just because we’re still alive and didn’t die.

And the ones who aren’t here to provide an explanation are said to have “lost their battle”.

Because folks generally assume we who get well again are the winners, and the ones who didn’t are – losers?

Despite the cliche, it just doesn’t work that way.

We all go in determined to fight cancer. But not all the fighters survive.

And not everyone who starts out fighting keeps on fighting, and not all the ones who stop fighting die when they do.

Not everyone who gets well again did so because they fought harder than someone who died. Some give up fighting, and live to tell about it.

Some fight and fight and fight, and go down fighting, and don’t get up again.

And just as many die fighting as live having given up fighting.

Fighting cancer, as it turns out, doesn’t really make a lot of difference to the outcomes. You still only get one of the two regardless of how much fighting you do, and how hard you do it.

Despite this, we still we talk about people who survived cancer as having done something clever or praiseworthy, and people who die from cancer as having given in, been defeated, or just plain old lost their battle with cancer.

—–

So as a survivor, people ask me a lot “So, what did you do?”

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

They want to know what I did to survive cancer, because I’m still alive, so clearly whatever I did worked. Naturally, everyone wants a solution to cancer that works.

Truth is, I don’t take any credit for getting physically well again. I did what I was told. I gave up fighting, because I didn’t understand what fighting cancer actually meant, when all I did was lay around and do what others told me and allowed people to do things to me they said would get rid of cancer. I don’t think I did fight cancer, and yet, here I am. I do, however, consider myself a cancer survivor.

Surviving cancer for me wasn’t about not dying, although I certainly didn’t want to die – surviving was about not letting cancer kill me in all the other ways it had the potential to, other ways which had not much to do with whether I would stay in this world or leave it. I figured when it came to actually dying, I’d just cross that bridge when I came to it.

Surviving is something completely different from not dying of cancer.

Surviving for me means having the courage to change the way I was living my life, because I believed cancer came about as a result of choices I’d made I had no business choosing, and paths I’d walked down I had no business walking down. Nothing to do with not dying.

Surviving means getting help for my crippling fear and anxiety – the legacy of being misdiagnosed for seven months then thrown into treatment four hundred kilometres away from my home and family less than a week after I was diagnosed. Again, not not dying.

Surviving means acknowledging my marriage wasn’t going to do likewise, and reminding myself I’d been alone and in pain before, and I could damn-well do it again if I had to.

Surviving means watching almost everyone I met while I was sick, and many, many more in the years that followed, fight, and not live while I lived on.

Surviving means being absolutely determined not to allow the thing which almost killed me define me, or be the most interesting thing which ever happened to me.

Surviving means making sure people don’t consider me a winner just because I didn’t die of cancer.

Surviving also means making sure people don’t talk about all my friends who died from cancer as losers just because they aren’t here to talk about all the ways they fought and survived and won.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #17 Your Burning, Broken, Beautiful Story

Talking about yourself is hard.

Talking about the worst thing that ever happened to you is even harder.

Talking about yourself, and the worst thing that ever happened to you, which also happens to be the one thing the mere mention of which generally sends people crashing backwards across the room, out the door and halfway down the street is the hardest. I don’t care who you are, it just is.

This is why an awful lot of people – probably more than you realise – will never tell anyone they’ve had cancer. Maybe not even when it’s happening.

Cancer and treatment can be lonely, difficult and stressful. It’s stressful for others around us as well. Often, the reason we don’t want to talk about cancer is because it upsets the people who care about us. Even if we managed to cope quite well with the experience, our having cancer may be the worst thing that ever happened to our friends or family, and they may never want to hear about it again. Not talking about cancer may be our way of assuring folks everything is all right again, and normal life has returned.

Not telling anyone about your having cancer, even when you have it, can have its benefits. But there are times when telling people your story is going to be worth the trouble, if not for you, then for the person you’re telling your story to.

There is more than one way for cancer to make us  “sick.” We can be heart sick. Soul sick. Brain sick. Friend sick. Cancer can hurt us in a plethora of ways, other than the obvious physical ones. I know, because I got all these kinds of sick when I had cancer, and more besides.

When I had these ten kinds of sick because of cancer, I really needed contact with another human being who understood what I was going through. More than I needed to hear the cliche’s like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”, more than I needed to stay positive or know how much longer I could expect to live beyond my treatment , I really needed someone who would sit with me and tell me I wasn’t broken because of my thoughts and feelings – someone who could say “I know”, and mean it. It was hard for me to find that kind of help, because many of the folks who’d been where I was had kicked out running and never looked back. Many folks who’d been through cancer didn’t want to go back in to that world, because getting better for them meant leaving it behind. But I knew I needed someone who didn’t just read about the ten kinds of sick I had in a book. I needed someone who truly understood, who spoke the language and recognised the landscape. I needed someone who’d been there.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

Now, even though I’ve been through cancer and treatment, I can’t know exactly what you’ve been through. But I do know this. At some stage, someone is going to ask you about it. Someone is going to want to know what you did when you had cancer and how you did it, and it won’t just be a morbid fascination. It’ll be because this one feels as though they’ve just returned from a foreign land, and they just heard you speak a few words of the language. It’ll be because they’re frightened and feel desperately alone, and all the folks they love look so terrified and helpless whenever they try to talk to them about how they feel. It will be because you represent something they desperately want to believe exists.

The future.

You’ll become a symbol of hope.

And one day, somebody’s eyes will swing around to meet yours, and you’ll see there the familiar fear you’ve faced before, and you’ll want to run away, but your heart will remember that loneliness and terror, and compassion will overcome you. And someone will ask you if you’d mind having your picture taken for the local paper, because they’d like to run a story about cancer to raise awareness, or raise money. Count on it. And one day, you’ll find out that people with cancer in your town can no longer have access to a treatment you were given because someone changed the rules, or someone decided to pull funding, and you’ll become hot with anger and indignation about it, and you’ll want to go and give someone a piece of your mind. And you’ll think about how talking about yourself is hard, and talking about the worst thing which ever happened to you is harder, and talking about yourself and cancer in the same sentence may well be the hardest thing you could ever do. But then you’ll realise you probably already did the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And you’ll know then in that moment, telling your story is just what you need to do.

You survived, you’re surviving, you are a survivor. You did and are doing something very, very hard. People need help, and they also need hope. You don’t learn about how to give people hope out of a book, in a class or from an expert. You learn to give others hope by very almost losing it, and then getting it back again.

You can give people hope. Your story matters. Tell your story.

*****

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