Five years ago today I was diagnosed with cancer. This week I have been reflecting on all I have learned since that day, about myself, life, love, and God. Here is what I know for sure.
What I Deserve
Many people have said to me,”You don’t deserve to have cancer!” What do we deserve? For a while I thought we deserved nothing. When life as you know it ends, you can get a little jaded. I know I did.
Webster tells us that “deserve” means to be worthy for some reward. It comes from the Latin, “deservire” meaning “to devote oneself to.” I do not deserve another day on this planet. I do not deserve not to get sick or have suffering. I don’t deserve a house, or a car, or cancer, or to be discarded. What do I deserve? What am I devoted to? I deserve to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved.
I deserve to love myself. I deserve to speak. I deserve to be seen. I have felt invisible many times in my life. I put myself in the corner, crossed my arms, and duct-taped my own mouth shut. There are reasons I have done that, and they are probably pretty valid. But staying quiet to myself doesn’t serve me anymore. When I stay quiet I am not living.
I did not become manifest to fade away. I came here to say something, and I am more devoted to that now than ever before. And, I am devoted to seeing, hearing and loving others.
Cancer IS the End of the World
Recently a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. A co-worker of ours said to me, “It’s rough, but it’s not the end of the world.” I replied that it actually is, in some ways the end of the world. I look back five years and see myself at age 37 being diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the end of my world.
It was the end of the world where I thought that cancer is the worst thing that can happen to a person. It was the end of the world where I thought that children would suffer irreparable harm if they watched their parent come close to death. It was the end of the world where I thought that my purpose was related to my prosperity, or that adults have to always “be responsible.” A lot of things died after I was diagnosed with cancer.
Joy and Suffering Are Not Opposites
There is joy in suffering. I am aware that saying that makes me sound like a masochist. I assure you, I am not. I like chocolate and bubble baths as much as the next person. But when I sat with my suffering I found there was a peaceful quality to it that felt more like living than anything else I have done. And there was a lot of time to sit with my suffering – all day in the chemo chair, and then several days afterward in bed sleeping, watching the ceiling and Law and Order re-runs, sitting in waiting room after waiting room. For people who might not have much time left cancer patients sure do spend a lot of time sitting with our suffering.
When I was first diagnosed, people did this with me. “It will be okay.” “You will fight this and win!” “You’ll be fine!” Guess what?? It was not okay. Cancer is not a fight. I wasn’t fine. I wrote about this ten days after I was diagnosed, asking people to let me just be in the suffering for a moment. We feel a need to rush through, but there is actually joy to be found inside cancer, just like there is joy in everything else.
I can remember crying, and feeling both so frightened and so full of joy that I could simply be present with that fear. I found that through all the pain and fear and unknowing if I could just say, “I am hurting,” and not try to fix or change it, then I could also be happy.
A friend that does boot camp training posted on Facebook one day that we can’t be happy unless our bodies are well. I commented that that is absolutely not true. My body is not “well.” I have scars and pain. I am missing parts, and there are plenty of things I can’t do easily, like close the trunk of the car. And I am so happy. Because I have no expectations that any of those limitations are going to change. Expectation, grasping to something other, blocks me from finding joy in the present circumstance.
All I Can Do Is Plant Seeds
Twice, while I was in the chemotherapy part of my treatment, I thought I was dying. One of the times I could hear my children playing just outside the apartment door. I felt my body lying in bed, but my spirit seemed to be hovering over my body, in the liminal space. I had this amazing clarity that my children have the seeds of all that I want them to know already sewn inside them; seeds I lovingly planted since the beginning of their days. And whether I lived that day or died, I am not in control of the conditions for those seeds. I can’t make them grow or rot. I can only plant them. This gave me such peace, because the worst thing for me about being diagnosed was the fear that my children would grow up without a mother.
I am weary of being told, “Don’t give up!” I am not just willing, but also committed, to giving it all up. I am not in control of it anyway. I see that giving up all that I am holding on to leaves me so free to keep planting seeds.