What Cancer can Teach You

Having cancer doesn’t teach you a lot that’s new; the real gift is its power of reminder, its ability to get you back in touch with what’s truly important in life. With its long recovery period, cancer can reconnect you with crucial things in your life that you’ve forgotten to notice or have lost touched with, or never even knew were there for you. It gives you the time and helps you find the patience to savor the innate preciousness of things. 

Until your convalescence this Spring, for example, you’d not really noticed how much animal activity there is on the land: there are the eagles and the ospreys and the cormorants  fishing the narrows that run by your fields; there’s the mother phoebe tending her young ones in the nest above your front door; there are the twin kits scampering from their den at the edge of the land and playing each afternoon in the culvert beneath the driveway; there’s the new-born fawn standing close by its mother, the two of them just staring at us from a safe distance; there’s the day-long proprietary cries of the red-winged blackbirds perched on the willows down at the pond and the sweet melodies of the bobolinks building their nests in the verdant fields.

And yesterday, it was the pair of seals barking love songs at each other as they swam up the river rapids; and always through the spring and summer there’s the cacophonous yearning calls of the peepers and the tree frogs and the bullfrogs and the crickets rising out of the darkness. The hidden grace of a prolonged illness is the free time it gives you to notice things, the ‘freeing’ time that the poet or the artist, the mystic or a child takes to notice and delight in these everyday miracles.

Another thing you’ve learned: your cancer has surprised you with concrete evidence that you are important to others. The stack of get-well cards you’ve received since the tumor was discovered  is now seven inches high and growing. Early on you had cobbled together a roll of family and friends with whom you’d like to be in touch as you go through this illness. You surprised yourself when you counted up and found that you had one hundred names on your ‘nearest and dearest’ list.  The great thing is that you’ve heard from every one of them over the long months that this isolating illness has taken its many twists and turns. You had to re-learn this, that wonderful people really do care about you. It’s taken cancer to teach you that.

Friends and family tell you repeatedly now that they miss you, that they worry about you and, best of all, that they admire and love you. What’s great is that you hear these consolations and encouragements at a time when they can actually do you some good: cancer frees people to tell you things that they might otherwise not get around to saying until they’re called on to speak at your funeral! These expressions of compassion and concern really do make a difference: you’re convinced that the prayers of your loved ones were what got you through those many times when you hardly had the strength to pray on your own.

Cancer can also  teach you about fear. You suspect that it’s because most of us, understandably, are frightened of this dread disease that when folks first see you after a long interim, they can’t help telling you how surprised they are that you’re looking so well! You’re grateful for their relief and you smile because it’s obvious that they half-expected to see you looking like death warmed over! But this illness can teach you and those who care about you that fear is not your only option. The prospect of having cancer will always be a scary thing. But the reality of living with the disease is that it can become a forced opportunity to do something creative and courageous with what life has handed you. Dealing with cancer is inevitably a sad and draining experience for all who are touched by it. But it can also become an opportunity for gratitude, a goad to generosity, an excursion into compassion, a call to endurance and a time to express and receive love.

But your battle with cancer is not just about aspiring to virtue. There is also this hard lesson: prolonged illness instructs you in just how dark your shadow side can be. It puts you and your caregivers in close touch with the disappointing parts of your personality — with your tendency to be easily annoyed and sharp and cutting, for example. It highlights your frustration at being so weak and feeble and no longer the strong, self-reliant person that you still feel you ought to be. And cancer’s onslaught is bound to expose your ugly narcissism: a critical illness is the perfect excuse for things being all about you, all of the time.

It’s humbling,  but it’s also a good thing to have to face this. You don’t give up growing as a person just because you have the excuse that you’re struggling with cancer. If nothing else, confronting your dark side reminds you how much there still is for you to work on! Amidst the shadows, however, cancer can connect you with a precious gift, the gift of mercy — God’s mercy in the knowledge that you’re still beloved despite all that’s unlovable about you. Mercy also abounds in the understanding and the forgiveness of your loved ones and caregivers even as you struggle with the hurt within. What a lesson — who knew that cruel cancer can carry with it the shining prospect of healing mercy, as well?!

Cancer has much to teach — how it offers you a time for wonder, provides you an assurance that you’re loved, offers an antidote for fear, and shines a merciful light on your shadow side. It instructs you in one thing more as well: cancer offers you the chance to practice a particularly rich brand of patience. That richness   is found in the root meaning of the word itself. Patience, derived from the Latin patior, originally meant, appropriately enough, “to suffer.” At base, the word suggests  that we allow,  permit, and endure what’s happening to us.

But to be ‘patient’ at its deepest root also means to be firm, to possess an unyielding hardness. That’s what cancer schools you in. Sooner or later you’ll have to face up to what this disease is doing to you, and when you do, you may well  hear yourself declare that you’re not backing down, that you’ll see this thing to its end, that you’ll cultivate the deep patience required to endure and survive and ultimately to thrive through and beyond your illness. Pretty tough stuff, this brand of patience that, if you’re fortunate, you learn to practice as the first and the last lesson among the many things that cancer has to teach you.

Edward R. Dufresne © 2018

2 Thoughts on “What Cancer can Teach You

  1. Mark Dirksen on June 5, 2018 at 7:45 am said:

    Cancer teaches us something else as well. Even through affliction we can have something to offer others: Words of public wisdom and personal insight. You’re blessing us here and now, Ed.

  2. Judy on June 5, 2018 at 11:44 am said:

    What a wonderful gift you have to be able to express yourself so brilliantly!! Thanks for sharing your experiences!!

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