A friend asked me the other day, “Who ever said that cancer was a gift?” You might be surprised how many times I’ve heard this. I hear it most often from people with cancer in the context of conversations about how much they’ve learned or grown since they were diagnosed.
Cancer has given them some of these gifts: appreciation of being alive, awareness that petty annoyances don’t matter, ability to find joy in small things, knowledge of themselves and others. The list goes on. People have an incredible capacity to be slapped down by the universe and, as they scramble back to their feet, bring meaning and worth to the experience of being slapped.
For me, though, a hurricane is only weather. It is wind and rain and destruction. It wrecks buildings, levels trees, and devastates lives. It has no malice and no intent. It is only wind and rain, responding to the rhythm of nature that is its context. It is not an enemy, a foe, or an opportunity. A hurricane is only weather.
So it is, for me, with cancer. No matter what metaphors we use, cancer has no malice and no intent. It is only a disease, a group of cells that obstruct and destroy, responding to the rhythm of biology that is its context. Cancer is devastating and is the catalyst for suffering and fear and grief, but it comes as neither enemy in the night nor as a gift or opportunity. It simply is.
It’s hard to look at cancer, the literal cancer. If you have a strong stomach, search online for photos of a “tumor” or of “cancer.” Allow yourself to see the mass of cells. I saw a photograph of my tumor about 20 minutes after it was removed by a surgeon whose name can still reduce me to sobbing. As I woke up from surgery the first thing I saw was his face. He said, “I was right. It’s cancer. See, this is what it looks like.” He gave me an 8 x 10 photo of the tumor, which made the image much, much larger than life. I think I would have preferred to see the actual tumor at that point rather than the photograph. In that moment cancer was devastating for me, but the enemy was a callous surgeon who–whether from malice, stupidity, or ignorance I don’t know–assaulted me with a photograph of a tumor.
Since being diagnosed with cancer, though, I’ve received many gifts. One gift came from Shawnalee, a friend of mine from Alaska. When she found out about my diagnosis she organized what she called a “card shower.” She put the word out about my diagnosis in Anchorage, got my address and asked people to send me cards. I knew nothing about this and one day got two cards in the mail from Anchorage friends. I was amazed at the coincidence. Snail mail from two different people on the same day. I couldn’t remember the last time I got personal mail. That was just the beginning. The letters arrived in spurts, one here, one there, two or three on one day. I think there were 15 in all. It’s hard to express how comforting those cards were for me. To read that someone cared about me, to know that they had found a card, written on it, found a stamp, and put it in the mail for me was just overwhelming. In addition, I decided to respond to each card. I looked forward to sitting down and writing to each person, to thanking each person for caring, to really thinking about what each person said and accepting their wishes for good health.
In the past few months I’ve learned to appreciate the privileges of my life. I hate being in an HMO, but I’m very grateful to have insurance. Despite the fact that I will free myself from an HMO at the soonest possible moment, I’m also grateful that I was in the HMO during my initial hospitalization. It cost more than $20,000, but I had to pay only $200.
I’ve also appreciated the fact that I have retained the ability to be athletic. Treatment was a rough road, exhausting and sometimes painful, but it did not endure. I was still able to ride my bike for 45 minutes most days, still able to run and walk.
The list could go on and on. Like other people with cancer I’ve been given these gifts: appreciation of being alive, awareness that petty annoyances don’t matter, ability to find joy in small things, knowledge of myself and others.
Cancer didn’t give me these gifts though. People gave these gifts, and I found these gifts inside. The ability to stand back up after being slapped down is the gift, not the slap itself.
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