Living with cancer: facing your own mortality gives you new eyes

Living with cancer: facing your own mortality gives you new eyes

Cancer changes your priorities. Small things, say a drop of water on a new leaf, seem more magical and special to me now. Big things, such as my daughter’s grades and waterproofing the basement, seem much smaller. Facing your own mortality gives you new eyes.

Don’t think this means that we who have cancer all see with the same eyes. We don’t. Of course we don’t.

This blog is called “Cancer is Not a Gift” because a fellow traveler informed me bluntly that cancer is a gift. He’s sure of it. I, for one, want to return my gift.

No “gift” has cost me more than cancer. It has taken several months completely away from me. When I could have been being a good mother, I was instead talking to doctors’ offices and the insurance company.

When I could have been reading or talking to a friend, I was having invasive exams and invasive procedures. When I could have been sewing or writing, I was running to the bathroom and calling a doctor’s office for pain medication.

When I could have been listening to my husband, my daughter, my friends, my students, I was instead obsessed with every ache and pain in my body. I was going through a list of what-ifs. I was reading and re-reading the NCCN protocol for bladder cancer treatment.

I was not present in my friends’ and family’s lives for the better part of six months because the only thing in my life was this horrific and unwanted “gift.” All I saw, to the left and to the right, up or down, was me, myself, and cancer.

You never get the time back. It’s just gone. So, take my gift back and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

But--thank the universe for the “but”--there are things along the way to discover. For me, cancer is best described as a journey. It’s not one I wanted to take, but still, here I am.

The road has been bumpy and terrifying at times. I’ve met some wonderful people--even the guy who thinks we all got gifts--who have taught me so much and have shown me that the journey does have some sights worth seeing.

For me, the biggest discovery on the journey so far happened when I was literally traveling, driving home from work to be precise.

I can’t tell you how hard it is to be patient, or even polite, to complaining colleagues at work after a cancer diagnosis. There were so many times when I wanted to yell, “Who gives a flying f--- about _______. I have cancer.” Thankfully, I successfully resisted that impulse.

Cancer makes you question how you’re spending your days. I’ve actually been questioning that for several years. I’m an “academic,” but I’ve never felt like one. I’ve never really felt like I fit in. I’m not smart enough or serious enough or active enough.

In my field, people act as if being a professor is a “calling.” I’ve never felt “called” to anything. But leaving a professor job is on par with leaving the priesthood. People don’t do it very often.

I’ve wanted to leave academia almost every day for the past five or six years. I’ve been thinking that I should give back to my community, to give to people who don’t get much given to them, to serve people.

I don’t believe in profiting or making money from other people’s weaknesses. The universe has been hard on me, but ultimately it has offered me grace. I can name a dozen people who have given me things that I don’t deserve, but because they gave to me I have been able to live and thrive. I want to give back.

On that drive home from work, I realized that now was the time. I needed to quit and find a job in the non-profit sector, giving to people who needed what I could give them.

But what do I have to give? The only thing that has ever been true about me is that I am a writer. I write, have written, will write. Writing has offered me empowerment, self knowledge, has opened doors of opportunity and comfort.

People need to write in order to succeed, in order to make it in the world. Writing is one of those key skills.

This is Paul Bunyan, a sculpture in the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University.

This is Paul Bunyan, a sculpture in the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University.

I teach writing at Governors State University. It is a small school that has been a senior college, which means that it has historically offered junior and senior level courses at the undergraduate level and graduate programs.

Our students are mostly from the south suburbs of Chicago. All of them come to us from somewhere else. They are mostly from under-served populations. They don’t have money and Ivy-league test scores.

Though most of them don’t know it, they’re just as smart and just as gifted as any students I’ve ever taught, including one very selective university in Texas.

You’re probably seeing where this is leading. It’s amazing how long it took me to get it. I almost wrecked my car when the pieces flew together.

It was like driving a mountain road in New Mexico and making a hair pin turn and seeing a canyon laid out in front of you. A canyon that can almost make my atheist heart believe.

I am already giving something to people who need what I have to give. I don’t save lives or feed people or provide crisis care, but I do help people learn to write.

Maybe I’m not a bona fide academic and maybe I’ll never feel like I fit in, but GSU is a non-profit institution with a heart for its community. GSU is very much what it is because of where it is. GSU has a calling to serve.

When I was driving home last November, it was a sunny day. I was still deeply immersed in my diagnosis and fear. My eyes were open, though, and willing to see.

What I saw is that I actually do have a place in the world, that I am already serving my community and giving back.

What I saw is something I’ve never seen before. I saw and still see that GSU is an institution that needs me and that I have been called to serve in this place.

We are admitting our first freshman class in Fall 2014. I was hired, in part, to help with that transition. That is something that I’d usually describe as my work.

But on that drive home, I realized that my work and my life are parts of  the same thing. They are intertwined. My family means the world to me. My students mean the world to me. GSU means the world to me.

Now that’s a gift.

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