Recently I had several long discussions with my niece, Nancy (who happens to be my goddaughter), about her experiences with battling breast cancer. Our conversations offered me some good insights into a spirituality for troubled times.
Her “troubled times” began with the dread diagnosis and continued through the anxiety and uncertainty that come with having a deadly disease then continued through the awful weakness and nausea and other side effects of chemotherapy; she has been remission now for four years. But when she discusses those difficult days what she concentrates on are the positive experiences that came along with the fear, the fatigue and the nausea. Yesterday she gave me a copy of her notes for a little talk she was asked to give to a group of cancer survivors in which she speaks passionately and forcefully about what she calls “the four gifts of cancer.” With her permission I’m going to share a slightly edited version of those notes with you here which takes up the remainder of this blog post.
The Four Gifts of Cancer
In that moment [of hearing the diagnosis of cancer] my whole life changed – I knew I was going to die. We all know we are going to die sooner or later but we all assume later – the cancer diagnosis suddenly makes you aware that it might be sooner, like now – this year, maybe even next month. I remember a moment in those first weeks, still in shock, of planting flowers in our new garden, sunshine, my husband – intense appreciation for the moment. So, the first gift of cancer was that sharp, fierce appreciation of every aspect of every minute I’m alive – the clouds, the movement of a tree branch, the color of someone’s lipstick, some eye-catching store decorations.
Suddenly I saw my good intentions for what they are – nothing! They vanished in a puff of air – they don’t count; all I am, all I’ve done with my life, all they’ll mention at my
eulogy is what I actually have done and said, not what I planned to do or say. Thus the second gift of cancer was the realization that anything I want to do I have to do now because I might not have tomorrow. This perspective has made my whole life better and more meaningful by reminding me not to put off compliments to friends or loving words to my family, or having fun.
The Third Gift
Then came the unexpected kindnesses and outreaches of love – relatives I didn’t even know sent me cards throughout my illness; people at work and at Cancer Center showed a great gentleness and a willingness to listen. My memories of my treatments at the Cancer Center are colored with a cast of sunshine by the cheerfulness and warmth of the staff – even though I loathed treatment, I looked forward to seeing the people. The third gift was that I learned of the goodness within people – that people truly are essentially good..
The beauty around me, my experience of receiving free kindness from strangers awakened my awareness of the inner, invisible beauty in God’s human creations.I like people more – even when they’re cranky or taking out anger at me at work, I know inside there’s an essential goodness that could respond to someone like me in need.
The Fourth Gift
I remember pacing around my kitchen, staring at the clock, saying to myself that I can’t do it, I just can not get in that car and drive myself to chemo and let them drip that stuff into me – but I did. I found wells of strength inside myself – fueled, I believe, by people’s prayers for me – that I didn’t know I had. I have not plumbed their depths – I did not come to the end of my strength; I triumphed. I got better. So the fourth gift of cancer – my identity of a survivor – is that I’ve learned that even when I don’t think I can do something, I probably can. When I go up stairs now, I run up them feeling like Rocky to remind myself of when those stairs felt likeMount Everest, and I take pleasure in my healing.
No doubt about it, cancer offers horror. But also offers gifts, special and precious gifts just for us survivors. The sharp sweetness life holds when you’ve faced losing it; the alertness to our limited time here to do what we want to do, so we can die with fewer regrets; awareness of the goodness of our fellow human beings; and knowledge of our own as-yet-untold inner strength.
That is how we survivors conquer cancer, whether we’re suffering in treatment now or in remission.Not by getting cured, but by facing the horror down, and applying the gifts to the rest of our lives – however long or short that may be.We survivors live more intensely, more meaningfully, more joyfully than before our diagnosis.