Thursday, May 13, 2010

A club I didn't ask to be in

Some people think that after an experience like cancer if you are not smiling and doing cartwheels every day, then you're just sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself. I am grateful to be alive, but still I have good days and bad days just like I did before cancer. I come home to my house, which has pink ribbon symbols everywhere, and it makes me feel like I'm in a sisterhood or a sorority that I didn't ask to be in, and I often feel like I don't belong because I'm not sure how I'm suppose to act. I woke up the day after my diagnosis and began thinking hard about these realities: My cancer could spread. I could live, I could die. My doctors might make mistakes. My activities might be limited. My finances might be impacted. I didn’t spend much time wishing away these circumstances. Instead, fully absorbing the reality of these putrid situations helped me stratagize and meet my needs. Spending some time staring at the scary realities has helped me feel my feelings instead of bottling them up. It has allowed me to live fully with "what is", which has made a lot of room for both sadness and joy. I don't dwell on the cancer and the possibility of dying--I just live my life.
There were only a couple of times that I actually thought I was dying. I was so miserable that I wanted to die. This state of accepting and even wanting death turned out to be incredibly peaceful and blew the lid off of every idea I had ever had of death prior to that moment. This is the most "real" place I have ever encountered, but it’s raw and uncomfortable, so why would you want to go there? We do everything in our power to run from that painful, ugly place. It is definitely not a positive place. But it is real. We rush through our lives wanting happiness, but it evades us because we are not willing to touch what is real. We think it is money or success or things being a certain way that will bring us happiness or satisfaction. But I think it actually comes from that brokenheartedness, which is our true humanity. It is the place where we are our weakest and our strongest. From that place, you can relate to anyone. If I can you hold onto these paradoxes, I will have more of a capacity to live fully and to cope with the fact that life is full of paradoxes like this.
Cancer not only sucks for me, but it hugely sucks for my family and friends who have to watch me go through it. So, when someone says, “What does not kill you makes you stronger” should I reply: “I’d rather be weak.”? It seems to me that perhaps the cancer community has blown the concept of strength out of proportion. My back has been up against the oncology wall many times when I’ve gone under the knife or received yet another infusion. I’ve surmounted these challenges not because I’m strong, but because the alternative means dying. It is strange to have placed on me such lofty personality judgments and descriptors like strength, courage, and inspiration in response to having gone through situations that stink and about which I have no other choice. The last thing I want is people cheering me on because I had a disease that I didn’t want, was miserable getting through, and wish I never had. That should not be my moment of fame. I’m not saying don’t celebrate the fact that I’m still alive. And I think it is great to honor cancer patients and recognize the challenges we face. But don’t call me strong when I have no other choice. It discounts the many nights that I sobbed alone into my pillow and felt cowardice in every inch of my body. I don’t want to erase those moments with a clean sweep of "strength washing"; everything I have experienced has been incorporated into "me". One of the best by-products of my cancer is that it has helped me befriend weakness. I no longer think of weakness as a negative term. In fact, I’m pretty damn proud that I can let myself feel scared and vulnerable. After all, cancer is scary business.

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