Sometimes the worst of times brings out the best of us. Here I share the 5 life-changing lessons I learnt as a cancer survivor.
One Friday afternoon, I sat in the staffroom at my school, enjoying a few drinks with my colleagues. I hadn’t been there long when the principal’s personal assistant came in, walked over to me and told me my doctor was on the phone and wanted to talk.
Confused, I stood up. A few weeks before I’d had an operation to remove an almost golf ball sized cyst from an intimate part of my body. It had been a day surgery, nothing more, so I couldn’t think why my doctor wanted to speak to me now.
I went to the PAs office, which she quietly vacated, and picked up the phone. Then this kind, gentle man, who had treated me for gynae issues as a teen, cared for me during my first pregnancy and delivered my son, tied my tubes, and finally seen me regarding the cyst (though had not been the one to do the actual surgery), told me he had some news. Would I like to come down to his rooms to talk, or would I like to be told over the phone?
Never one to wait, I opted to be told over the phone.
Five minutes later, I walked back into the staffroom a different woman than the one who had walked out of it. The cyst was in fact a rare tumor, a proximal type epithelioid sarcoma. At that time, 65% of patients diagnosed with this tumor would be dead within five years.
In a daze, I called my father. As a doctor himself, who worked with my GP (general practitioner), his surgery had been sent a copy of my lab report that morning. As my GP was away, Dad had opened it without thinking. He had then been forced to sit all day, treating his patients, in the unshared knowledge that his 31 year old daughter had a prognosis that should be “guarded.”
The next few months were a crazy time. The first step was to see if the cancer had spread. I had CTs and MRIs and was given the all-clear. But proximal type epithelioid sarcomas don’t respond to chemo and radiation therapy as a rule, so the next step was further extensive surgery, in order to hopefully prevent me being one of the 75% who had a recurrence.
The physical recovery from cancer was therefore relatively short, but the mental recovery took several more years. I’d like to say I handled the process with dignity and grace, but that would be a lie.
However, once I got through the other side (for here I am still, some 12 years later), I realized that I had learnt some super important lessons, lessons that would help me lead a better life going forward. Luckily, you don’t have to have had cancer to learn from them.
Life-changing lesson Number 1: People are kind
There are crazy, stupid, evil people out there, yes. But deep down, most of us are full of kindness. After my second surgery, my work colleagues worked out a meal roster for two weeks and hand-delivered dinner to our home. Other friends came over and did the ironing for me. These practical gestures made such a difference to our daily lives while I was healing.
As well as practical gestures, the physical presence of people also helped. Whether it was people who knew me well, or people who didn’t, they all took time out of their busy days to be with me. They listened, shared their stories and at times just sat quietly as I cried.
Most of the time when we are suffering, we do so alone, because we are afraid of what might happen if we ask for help. More so than being thought weak, is the secret fear that what if we ask, no-one will come. I can assure you, that someone will. Maybe not the people you expected, maybe not the people you hoped for, but someone will be there for you.
Life-changing lesson Number 2: Your body is not your enemy
The language of surviving cancer borrows heavily on metaphors of violence. You are told you need to beat this disease, that you need to fight it, that you need to win the battle.
At the time I first felt my tumor, I had only just reunited with my boyfriend after a year of separation, and I was still living alone. I’ll tell you the truth, I regarded it with a bit of fascination and also a weird degree of fondness. It was like that ingrown hair that you just can’t help poking around.
I have always believed, crazy or not, that this initial fondness for my tumor helped me survive. It was a part of me. It was not a foreign invader; it came from my body. I grew it like I have grown my eyelashes, my toenails, my hair. I lived with it for months.
Waging war against our own bodies implies a victory or defeat. And if it looks like you’re going to lose that battle, then you’re going to feel like a failure. You’re going to wonder that if you had just fought that little bit harder, that maybe the outcome would be different.
There is no mind-body split. How we think manifests itself in our body; how our body processes things manifests in our minds. When we hate our bodies, we hate ourselves. We need to work with the aspects of ourselves that aren’t working how we want them to. We need to see them as a sign that something is out of balance – not as something to be conquered. We should treat ourselves with loving kindness.
Life-changing lesson Number 3: Numbing your feelings doesn’t work
Remember how I told you that I didn’t handle things with grace? I did at first. I went back to work after that phone call, and while I waited for the second surgery to create clear margins, not one of my students would have been the wiser.
Then after my second surgery I had six weeks to recover, and then I again went back to work. And then I got depressed. And then my drinking, which was already starting to cause problems in my life, got really out of control. I was so afraid, and drinking made me forget my fear. Paradoxically, it also brought out my fear. Once I got drunk enough, I’d start crying and crying and telling anyone that would listen that I was going to die. It was a very messy time and one full of more than a few regrets.
Once I made the decision to stop drinking (which was a lot more complicated than the sentence suggests), I had to start feeling again. And that is when I learned that feeling my fears, feeling all my feelings, gave me a strength and clarity I never anticipated.
Numbing your feelings through alcohol, drugs, eating, whatever it is you do, does not get rid of them. It merely suppresses them. And the worst part about suppressing them is that you never know when they will erupt. It really is a case of the only way out is through, so get yourself in a safe place, with safe people if you need them, and give yourself permission to feel.
Life-changing lesson Number 4: Never let fear rule
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my Dad gave me some really important advice. His father had had a massive heart attack when he was just 38. He survived; in fact he lived until he was over 80. However this event changed both him and my grandmother. They lived in fear that he’d have another heart attack, and this shaped every move, every decision. It made their world much smaller.
My father did not want that for me.
Now this is something that is easier said than done. I was full of fear. I did not want to die and leave my children, who were only 7 and 11 at the time. My fear led me to marry the boyfriend that was so wrong for me because I was afraid of dying alone and I was afraid for anyone else to see my body post-surgery.
For being courageous from the get go is unrealistic and again leads you to punish yourself when you can’t cope. But there will come a time when you realize that it is time to move on, that it is time to not let fear rule. When that time comes, you will be able to move past the things that have kept you stuck with people and things that no longer serve you. There’s some strategies here that you can use to support yourself to move past your fear.
Life-changing lesson Number 5: The world is beautiful
Shortly after my diagnosis I went to the movies. I don’t know why I agreed to go. I remember walking towards the movie theater, feeling as though I was encased in a bubble that separated me from everyone else. They were blissfully moving through their lives and all I could think of was what was happening to me. I don’t remember a single thing about the film we saw.
After a time, the bubble went away, and I started to appreciate the beauty of the world in which we share. Small glimpses of things would make me catch my breath. The sound of the rain on the roof at night. The glow of a full moon. The buds on the branches as spring settles in.
The truth is, it is all so very beautiful. Sometimes you just need to look, listen and breathe, to connect yourself to the simple pleasures in life.
The world has existed for years. It will continue to exist after we are gone. There is a peace in that.
It is true the greatest trials of our lives can end up being our greatest triumphs. I’ve been lucky enough to be cancer free many years, but the things that I learned through my journey have stayed with me.
Trust in the kindness of others. Don’t wage war with your body. Remember that numbing your feelings doesn’t work. Refuse to let fear rule. And remember – the world is beautiful.