Everyone’s experience of cancer is different, except for the parts which seem almost universal.
One thing I’ve noticed which seems almost the same for everyone diagnosed with cancer is the widespread perception amongst the people around them there has to be a moral to the story. You know – a point, a lesson or a conclusion to be drawn from cancer.
I think there are two reasons we feel we need an answer to cancer -
1) We believe everything that happens in life is there to teach us something.
2) We want to believe everything has a positive side, if we choose to see it.
When it comes to cancer, both these can certainly be true. For some, attaching a sense of purpose can give cancer some meaning, and God knows, sometimes we need to feel there’s a meaning, otherwise we’d need a psychologist as well as an oncologist. And many do.
But a lot of people with cancer don’t want to see a meaning. For them, cancer isn’t the most amazing or interesting thing that’s ever happened to them. A lot of folks don’t want to see a deeper purpose in cancer, or allow themselves to be changed or defined by it.
After a cancer diagnosis, ours or someone else’s, we may (naturally) feel confused and upset. We might lose some perspective on life, and often a sense of panic sets in. Those surrounding a cancer experience will often spend quite some time thinking of ways of making cancer seem less frightening and more under control – for ours, and for their own benefit – and this can have them compacting cancer down into a cliche, or else scrambling to find a way to attach some kind of deeper meaning to it. In validating cancer as a meaningful experience, it’s less frightening somehow.
There’s nothing wrong with this: it’s simply a coping mechanism.
However, as cancer sojourners we need to be mindful we don’t simply absorb or accept others projections and conclusions about what our having cancer means and what lessons we’re supposed to draw from it. We can work out our own conclusions. We also have to be careful not to apply subtle pressure on ourselves to “get it all worked out”, or feel obliged to explain to others what deep meaning our having cancer holds, particularly if we don’t feel it has one.
It’s perfectly okay to see cancer as a waste of time, totally unfair, and utterly pointless.
When you have cancer, people often like to say things such as “The Universe/God is trying to teach you something by giving you cancer. There’s a lesson in this for you.”. And sometimes, rather than a polite nod and an appreciative smile, the appropriate response to these kinds of remarks is “Really? Then The Universe/God is an asshole.”
Sometimes, people also like to let you know exactly what lesson they believe your cancer experience has for them, regardless of what your actual experience may have been. After I went into remission I was asked often to speak to groups and at functions about my having cancer. At first I said yes to every invitation – I really wanted to help and inspire others. But after a few engagements, I became more wary. I realised many folks didn’t actually want me to tell the truth about my cancer story – they wanted me to tell the story they wanted to hear about cancer. They wanted to hear my personal transformation story, and I didn’t have one. You see, despite the fact I survived cancer physically, I was significantly traumatised by six months of treatment. I entered remission with a shiny new anxiety disorder and a pathological fear of going anywhere more than fifty kilometres from my home. My husband was diagnosed with depression, and was prescribed anti-depressants. I was most definitely not a better person because of cancer, and I found there were people who most definitely did not like to hear about that, not one little bit.
After a while, I stopped accepting invitations to speak at events if I suspected they were going to practically hand me a script with what I was supposed to say to make them feel better about my having cancer. I simply didn’t feel that way, and I didn’t feel like lying about it. I wanted to explain to people how having cancer wasn’t always heroic, transformative or noble, and how nobody really understood what “fighting cancer” even meant, and how people who had cancer were tired of being told to ‘be positive’. But nobody wanted to hear that message.
We can learn a lot from the bad things that happen to us, but only if we want to, and only if there’s something to be learned. Sometimes the shit is just the shit, and there’s no point or any higher meaning. Sometimes it’s just terrible, ugly and sad, and all we can do is simply allow ourselves to go with it. At times we can extrapolate purpose from our trials, and that is often wonderful, but it isn’t ever compulsory.
We all get to choose our own cancer adventure, and it may well be cancer turns out to be the greatest lesson we’ve ever learned. But in releasing our expectations of what cancer must mean, must teach us and must look like, we also release ourselves into our own unique capacity to define cancer in the way which suits us best, instead of allowing cancer to always define who and what we are.
We are always, always better and greater than cancer. And nobody likes being dictated to by something they consider lesser than themselves.
Let go of the script which prescribes how you’re supposed to think and act as someone with cancer, and don’t feel obliged to interpret your cancer journey for others. Let them make of it what they will. You get to choose your own cancer adventure, and do this any way you please – noble or cowardly, heroic or needy, changed or unchanged. This I know – cancer doesn’t always have a moral or a point at the end of it. Sometimes it’s just a big, fat, waste of time, and that’s perfectly okay. Let yourself off the hook, and give yourself a small break. You, and the folks around you, need it now, more than ever.
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