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.
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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