Part of me doesn’t want to be changed by cancer. Part of me wants to keep complaining about the absurdities of daily life, get worked up by non-issues, and deliver clever cathartic releases through social media forums. The problem with this perspective is that it anthropomorphizes cancer. It gives it a face. A personality. A conscious intent. And cancer has none of those.
Cancer itself doesn’t change who I am as a person, fundamentally, at my core. It doesn’t stop me from whining about obnoxious customers. It doesn’t prevent me from expressing relationship desperation through passive instagram photos. It doesn’t prohibit me from selfishly spewing negativity onto others instead of finding something more valuable and constructive to talk about. It doesn’t change those ingrained behaviors because it isn’t a conscious force that can convince me to do otherwise. It is merely a physical force. It is an unconscious, but valuable component of the evolutionary process. So cancer does change me…but only physically.
The cancer EXPERIENCE, however, is a whole ‘nother matter. That is where change truly happens.
I had a conversation with a friend going through a similar cancer experience after we were both recently diagnosed, and I questioned if the cancer experience would change me. Undoubtedly, I knew it would, but I wasn’t sure how. Again, part of me didn’t want it to change me. I didn’t want to give cancer that sort of power. I felt pretty good about myself up to that point and didn’t see the need to change things too drastically. Part of my consideration had me worried that I was to be EXPECTED to change, or to be changed, against my personal wishes. I didn’t want to be a different person just because I lost part of the genetic lottery…I wanted to keep my life how it was.
But that was absurd. And I can say without reservation that, right now, I have changed. Of course, CANCER didn’t change me…the EXPERIENCE has changed me. And more directly, how I have interpreted and approached the experience has changed me. I could have very well gone on cathartically complaining about the little things in life, feeding into the stream of negativity and hyper criticism that seems to mark our days and of which I’ve greatly done my part to build…but I’ve stopped. Ok, I’ve TRIED to stop. It’s not easy. Angry customers are still angry customers.
But still, things are undoubtedly different.
Facing down your suddenly abbreviated mortality will do that to you. And there is a great fortune in being put in that position.
I had yet to express it, a little out of fear and potential insensitivity, but a friend of mine who is also suddenly facing down an abbreviated timeline of life affirmed my thoughts by stating them to me bluntly.
We are FORTUNATE to be dying….slowly.
We are afforded the experience of actually CONSIDERING our death, and therefore life…on a VERY REAL level. Over time. Deeply and passionately. This is no longer a philosophical exercise, and although it may sound a little blunt, unless you are going through this very real process of a slow death or potential fatal endpoint, you just don’t understand. I don’t say this arrogantly, but there is a great truth to that. I considered my life and my death prior to diagnosis, but to do so with the understanding of the physical reality of the situation, again, is entirely different, more emotional, more intimate.
And yes, we’re all gonna die. Our mark on the earth will be forgotten. The planet will ultimately be engulfed in a ball of flame when the sun erupts, though we’ll all be long gone before that, but that awareness is still distant…too distant to be real and intimately felt. And even when you recognize that “tomorrow isn’t guaranteed”…it’s different.
How many times have you thought to yourself in the past month, “I wonder if this will be the last xmas I ever have?”
I’ve thought that a lot.
THAT’S part of the difference in considering death and knowing death.
And so…that has changed me. It has changed me because I can’t put off the life I want to live, the person I want to be until a later date when I feel more comfortable, more compelled to make the change. I might not have enough to time to experience the rewards of being a better person, of seeing the world through more compassionate eyes, more calmed nerves…just in a more contented place. And that’s what I want. With this realization, this very real circumstance, I have most definitely changed…not by cancer, but by how I’m using the cancer experience and how my perceptions of mortality influence and shape my worldview and actions.
Which leads me to this statement. “I’m sorry”.
Sincerely. Not, “I’m sorry I’m not sorry”. Just…I’m sorry. I am a hyper-critical person, a skeptic, a doubter…because those traits have served my intellectual and personal purposes well. They are character traits I admire in others because they lend towards honest considerations, keep us from being tricked by hucksters, the selfish and the exploiting. They are hallmarks of the self-made individual. But they can also easily be coopted by inner anger, insecurity, and general discontent. They can lead an individual to tear down others for personal value and generally create an environment of loathing and negativity…and i’ve certainly contributed my share to the world, whether I was aware of my effect or not. And I’m sorry for being that person.
Because the cancer experience has changed me, and those little, tiny, annoying issues that used to drive me nuts…are just inconsequential. They are nothing. They are non-issues. And even the big issues…the important ones, the ones I’m often unable to effect any control over whatsoever…I simply complained about them because it was all I could do…to no alteration at all. It was negativity that fouled the air and then dissipated into nothing.
And the cancer experience has changed how I view all those issues. They just don’t matter anymore. If they are not addressing “the big issues” or if we can’t have any control over them, then they aren’t worth wasting time on. They aren’t worth the expressions we give them. And I see this, because I see it in others now, expressing and complaining and spewing selfish cathartic releases just as I have in the past. And it saddens me. Because I know where it comes from and I know it doesn’t have to be there. There is another way out. There is a great realization of our mortality and a calm in coming to terms with it, moving on and shaping our lives how we want them to be…even in the face of all our daily frustrations. We can let them go.
We can let them go and it doesn’t even take waiting to BE changed. It just takes making the change yourself. I was fortunate to have embraced personal change and progression earlier in life, constantly seeking to be a better person through my actions and perspectives, and equally as valuable, I’m now able to use this cancer experience to help change me too. I’m becoming more of the person I want to be, while I have the opportunity to be that person and experience the value of doing so.
So yeah, it’s often said that having cancer will change you…but it doesn’t. How you choose to view adversity, of any kind, and how you engage with that experience will allow you to change yourself.
We are fortunate to be able to contemplate our mortality and even more to be able to do something about it.