The Gift of Cancer

by | Feb 21, 2022

One of the first things a friend said to me after cancer number one showed up was that cancer will teach you who your real friends are. 

It’s cliched, it’s passe, but unfortunately, it’s determinedly and unmistakably true. 

I understood the sentiment but wasn’t prepared for just how effectively cancer can be a friend filter. And who would fall away, even after 20 years of friendship. Or, more surprisingly, who’d come from the edge of the light cast by the bonfire, swivel from an almost arms-length, occasional touch-points friend to a solid, front and center ally, supporter, and comrade.

I should probably not lead with cancer’s friend filtering qualities in an essay on the gifts cancer bestows since there is much more to it than that. But it is a great indicator of who you can count and rely on. And who you can place your trust in. 

More significant to your existential thinking, insights, contemplations, and processing; cancer brings the opportunity to reassess, redefine and explore anew just what it means to be you, be alive and be mortal.

We generally tend to think of our inevitable mortal sunset in removed and abstract terms, without the immediacy and focus that it deserves. But that’s speaking for myself, I realise that many would rather continue to float through and not dig deeper into these thoughts that are heavy, sobering, disturbing, unnerving.

I prefer to ask what it is telling me. Which could be a can of worms, and initially is, since they all spill out at once, worms everywhere. Worms of thought, of doubt and of uncertainty; and they don’t leave you alone, they gnaw with what if, what then, and what now. And it’s overwhelming at first, the unknowns outnumber the knowns and in oncology, there are no certainties, and as the tests and treatments drag on you are flotsam between the rocks and the hard of the seawall… in an unrelenting storm. It’s all so exhausting.

But there are wonderful discoveries to be made, hence the idea of the gift of cancer. 

I discovered, again in many ways, what really matters and how certain things that we make matter too much should be discarded with, contempt even, for they are not to be allowed such power and presence. 

The small things that should not get us upset lose their clutch and eminence. And letting go becomes easier in the stark light of what is significant and what just shouldn’t be. 

I don’t think I dealt with the cancer realisation in the classic stages of grief – grief it certainly is, the grief of knowing your life will never be the same, even if you are cured. I jumped back and forth between the stages, but denial was the shortest. I replaced denial with ignoring. Not the sticking your head in the sand hoping it will go away kind of ignoring. More of a determined, if not very energetic, push to the side and just have the coping that comes with doing the simple steps.

With everything that can be said around it, it is undeniably clear that cancer as a concept, not even the disease, sparks alert and concern and dread. It is a stop in your tracks moment, a turning point. It has to be. Even if not life-ending it has to be life-altering. Because life and living and what’s significant can be evaluated anew, choices can be made, nothing has to stay the same.

You can leave it all and go live in a clearing in a pine forest in a homemade tent, a kettle over a fire, and a brightly striped rainbow hammock strung between the trees. 

Choices; you don’t have to put up with anything you don’t want in your life. Because this is still life, your life; and you owe it to yourself to inject value and meaning and relevance and magnitude and consequence into it.

This is your canvas going into your frame, you have to colour it, for you.  You don’t have to, and should not, think about everyone else and what they need or think you should be. You are allowed moments of selfishness and emerge from each with a new stamped freedom to not do things you no longer want, that don’t add meaning in life and do more of the things you do want and that you need for your fulfillment.

 So I’m implementing regular reevaluation sessions for myself. And I look at all things from all perspectives.  Physical objects, thoughts, feelings, and people. Do you belong, in this form? Do you contribute, improve and lighten the load or do you weigh down my spirit and sap my energy.

The easiest thing to do then is to let go, open your hand and let it fall out.   Thanks cancer.