Cancer does not make us (or John McCain) better people

One of the truths that we with cancer hold self-evident is that cancer does not make you a better person. I’m not sure where this mythology originates. Probably from the same fairy dust that produces “brave,” “courageous” “fighters” and that demands cancer patients be “positive.”

Cancer patients are no more or less good than the human beings you’d meet in the grocery store or at the DMV. We open our car doors and ding the car next to us and then get the hell out of dodge just like you do. We have road rage. We curse. We’re petty and mean.

In fact, cancer sometimes inspires us to be worse people. We have more rage and less personal responsibility. (Life is short, so, you know, flip people the bird more often before time runs out.)

If you were kind, thoughtful, and generous before cancer, you’ll likely be kind thoughtful, and generous after a cancer diagnosis. If you were an asshat before, you’ll likely remain one after.

If you change, and if you become better instead of bitter, then that’s on you. You—and not cancer—have brought a spirit of gratitude and openness to the table. You—and not cancer—have decided to make this a teachable moment and a time to make peace with the world. You—and not cancer—are the gift.

And, let me assure you. You don’t have to have cancer in order to gain insight, to learn and to grow. It is not a definitive experience. I know some fantastic human beings that do not—thanks be to the universe—have cancer.

Truthfully, a cancer diagnosis can take the stuffing out of you. It can sap your energy and your will. It can strip you down. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, too. Cancer comes into your life in the middle of things. It just adds more to your plate.

So, for those of you who expected John McCain to suddenly become a Democrat because of his diagnosis, I’m sorry that your expectations let you down. McCain did not let you down. He is the same John McCain today that he was two weeks ago.

Getting a diagnosis of cancer has not, and likely will not, provide McCain with awareness of the immense privilege he has as a US Senator for the best cancer care in the US. He is not going to suddenly realize the critical importance of the ACA’s protections. Not because of cancer.

For heaven’s sake. He’s 80 years old. And, he’s been through hell. I suspect his point of view and his moral compass are pretty much set.

I still feel compassion for this human being because cancer sucks. But I don’t have any optimism about cancer’s power to transform him. Cancer is just a bunch of cells growing and growing and growing, until chemo, radiation, immunotherapies, surgery, or death shut it down.

John McCain is still himself, as I am still me. Neither of us has been elevated by our diagnosis. If we manage to learn or change, it will be entirely because we have chosen to do so. It is my very great hope that McCain chooses to shape health care so that everyone has the same advantages that he has.

I wrote this piece, “Still Shallow After Cancer,” a few years ago. I also wrote about John McCain last week. You might enjoy reading these.

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Filed under: Cancer, Uncategorized

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