For those who don’t have cancer, the mere thought of it invading your body is mind boggling, shiver inducing, cringeworthy. You can lose sleep over this shit. I know, I’ve had plenty of sleepless nights. But those were early on in my journey. Three plus years in, I sleep like a baby. Which is not to say that I don’t think about it, that I don’t worry, that I’m not sad that cancer has changed my life in ways that I didn’t expect. Oh yeah, I experience all those things and more. But I’m not angry, and I know I’m a better person than I was before I was diagnosed. Cancer, my friends, builds character.
I’ve been called many things in the past three years, four months, and twelve days. (Yep, I remember the exact date I got the big news.) Warrior, brave, survivor, strong, bitch, sick, Cancer Barbie. I’ve been told that I have to die sometimes. (Imagine.) I’ve read crushing statistics on lung cancer. I’ve been asked time and again if I smoke. (Nope.) I’ve hiked thousands of miles. Traveled thousands more. Buried a sister. Retired from teaching. Seen cancer come and go in my lung, neck, sternum, stomach, pancreas, hips, and flank. Seen “healthy” people pass away before me. Bought a house. Wrote a book about my experience. Learned to like myself again. Learned who really loves me. Learned who my friends are and who aren’t. Learned so much about myself. Learned things that I never wanted to know. Cancer was there the whole time, guiding my way.
In fact, for me, cancer is not going away completely until a cure is discovered. To prove it, my little friend is flaring up in the aforementioned flank, and I will need to have day surgery to get rid of it, once again prompting the kinder of the words: strong, brave, amazing. I don’t feel any of those things. Damn it, I just want to live my life. It just keeps getting interrupted by this disease. I don’t have a choice but to be strong, brave, and amazing. It’s a whole lot better than the alternative. And man, I’m pretty lucky to have choices in the matter. To have a alternative to the alternative. To keep living my life with periodic annoyances. So many people with cancer don’t have these choices.
I’ve consistently and extensively traveled the world, the country, and my local area. Once, when it seemed that I had a lot less to worry about than now, I was in a group of travelers at my school. I still see the people I effortlessly traveled with doing the same thing I used to do with them. Truth is, I still do it too, just with more planning and caution. COVID19 slowed me down a lot more than cancer did. The point being, I can still do what I love. With cancer! But back to the crowd I used to globetrot with. I’m not asked to join anymore. That’s okay, I have a travel companion or two, and I love hitting the road and the sky on my own. I’ve changed too, my priorities are different. I’m not counting countries anymore. I’m going where I really want to go, even if I’ve been there ten times before, even if others are in “exotic” venues and I’m hiking a national park or exploring some abandoned place with cool graffiti. In short, I have nothing in common with most of these people any longer. Being left behind is fine. I’m good. I have experience now that most of them wouldn’t understand or acknowledge or care about. Why would I want to be with them? My entire way of thinking and seeing the world has evolved. I have more respect for the cancer infested me than the earlier me.
If cancer builds character, man, do I have character! And as mentioned above, I’m currently in the throes of gaining more, what with my “side bump” growing again, a literal “thorn in my side.” In some crazy way I’ll be happy to get rid of the little bugger; it’s lodged in my skin on my right flank at the tenth rib, and though it has not been any bother in two years, before then it gave me hell. Buh-bye!
What are the most character building lessons I’ve learned from cancer?
That cancer is a bigger bitch than I am. But only sometimes. That if I give up even for a minute, I’ll die. That I’m extremely lucky in an unlucky situation. That I can’t count on my current family members for anything, unless I want to play their game, stoop to their level, or be subjected to their vitriol. I’ve learned to reach out to friends, as tough as it is for me to ask them for anything. The rest of the time, I’ve learned more than ever to count on my cancer ridden self. I’ve learned that so many things that used to concern me really don’t matter in the big picture of life. I’ve learned to turn my back on situations and people that aren’t worth my time. I know how to pick my battles well now. I’ve truly learned the lessons of survival.
But what I have learned most of all is this: there is no bigger fight than the fight for your life. If you’ve never experienced having your very existence in jeopardy, you wouldn’t truly know what I’m talking about, no matter how much you think you do. Never underestimate the power of impending death to change you or that person that you know is struggling.