A Reminder: Cancer is not a gift and neither is COVID

On the first night I joined my cancer support group, back in 2012, a member of the group told me that cancer was a gift. I was crying at that moment, but stopped on a dime. I was speechless.

Not long after, I discovered the New York Times’ feature, ”Picture Your Life After Cancer,” a series of photos that people submitted of themselves with short descriptions of their lives after a cancer diagnosis. I ran across two photos, both of Laurie Comings, a young woman who had survived leukemia. In one she was dancing at a wedding. In another she was in scrubs working as a nurse on an oncology unit. In her description, she wrote, "When tallied up, no, it is not a blessing, and never tell a cancer patient that it is.”

I wanted to hug her, dance with her, talk to her. She was angry about what cancer took from her, about how it made her suffer, about how treatment had left permanent disabilities. And in her words I found validation and comfort.

It is human nature, at least for some humans, to find silver linings. And, I’ve heard people say similar things about COVID, about its “gifts.”

But I want to push back hard against the notion that the tribulation itself brings the gifts, that if we look hard enough we will find silver linings.

To talk like this erases suffering. We erase each other and erase our humanity. Cancer is awful. It’s terrifying, traumatic, painful, soul-destroying. Cancer kills our children and our husbands, our mothers and grandmothers.

For those who live through it, cancer leaves behind trauma and anxiety, depression and sorrow.

Treatments often have lifelong effects: hearing loss, lymphedema, neuropathy. People lose organs and limbs. People lose their voices, their privacy, their sex lives. People lose friends and family members.

Suffering and dying do not in real life mirror their depiction in movies. So much of suffering through cancer is disgusting. Pain isn’t noble. It can be intolerable both to feel and to watch. Drugs that relieve pain often shut down consciousness and bring their own side effects.

I imagine the same is true of those who’ve met COVID face to face.

This morning I took my thyroid pill and choked on it. It was stuck in my throat and I couldn’t breathe. For half a second I thought I’d die. I panicked. But then, of course, it cleared and I could drink water.

I thought then of people with COVID, unable to catch their breath for long periods of time. The terror they must feel. The sounds they must make.

I remember being in a hospital room with my mother when a mucus plug caused her to code. She couldn’t breathe, and while she was conscious the look in her eyes is something I’ll never forget, though I have tried.

These are not gifts, and you’ll not find silver linings in their midst. They are the stuff of nightmares and post traumatic stress.

Yet, I am a long way from my cancer diagnosis and successful treatment. I am starting to gain my footing in the midst of COVID. And, I know that I have grown and learned in spite of the suffering, in spite of the lingering effects.

I walk my dog through my neighborhood, usually a quiet place, not unfriendly but not full of gregarious hand wavers and folks calling out, “Hello, how are you?” either.

I’m seeing folks and dogs I’ve never seen before, and almost without fail people greet each other with warmth. As they cross the street to keep good distance they smile and comment on my dog.

As my dog sniffed a tuft of grass, one woman said, “Do you know what he’s doing?” Pause. “Checking his pee mail.” I roared laughing.

A group of us gathered on the four corners of an intersection a few weeks ago, all looking in the sky at a group of 20 or so migrating vultures. We watched together and talked about how eerie it was to see them.

I watch John Krasinski’s "Some Good News” every week and marvel at the kindness and generosity of human beings.

But these are not gifts of COVID. They aren’t silver linings discovered.

These are intentional acts by human beings. The good we see in the midst of suffering is the good we make.

Cancer and viruses are diseases, aberrations, replicants. They are not gifts and they are not joy.

Humans, though, we’re capable of creating the good, of learning in spite of the bad, of making in the midst of the ignoble some nobility. Some can even, in the midst of horrible pain, offer joy, craft peace.

Clouds don’t have linings. There is not good inside of them. Instead we stitch good inside of them.

When we do these good things, we honor the suffering of others, we acknowledge it, we are humble in its presence. We can fight for others and for ourselves. We can believe.

We can make for ourselves a new normal, where both grief and hope have a place. We can see others, hear them, offer care.

We can give the gift of ourselves.

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