Stupid Cancer

Cancer is so stupid! It does not discriminate, it does not think through its decision of who shall have cancer and who shall not. A baby diagnosed with leukemia did nothing to invite cancer; neither did that baby’s parents. A young woman, and elderly gentleman,  those who are poverty-stricken, those who live in luxury’s lap, and everyone in between,  did not invite cancer to their doorstep. As a survivor of breast cancer, I have made myself available to talk to people, about their experiences and how I can be helpful. One of the most prevalent questions is “why me”. 

“Why me”? I laugh to myself remembering the moment I asked this question. Then my answer, “why NOT me”? Cancer is stupid. It hasn’t got a brain. It isn’t strategic, sneaky, or seeking retribution. It is not seeking anything other than to proliferate.  The issue is that cancer is stupid and it sucks! It is frightening, intrusive, and makes us feel ill and vulnerable, and ultimately kills us. The treatment can be exhausting, nauseating, health and life threatening, and very invasive..... or NOT.

A few days ago I spoke with a young mother who was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was very optimistic, but also so afraid. " Why me?" "What did I do. I have always eaten well, I had my babies at a young age. I nursed. No one else in my family has ever had it....?" She is worried--- as most of us who have gone through it are---about her chemotherapy. She is worried about how sick will she get, how tired will she be, how will her children react, and how will she take care of her kids? 

Sometimes, cancer is the first time a person has ever slowed down and allowed themselves to be taken care of. I’m a psychotherapist, wife, and mother of three children. Everywhere in my life I have a commitment to take care of others. It is what I LOVE to do. It is who I am. When I had cancer I reaped a perverse benefit (I actually reaped many perverse benefits and have written other blogs about them, so feel free to check them out). I HAD TO LET OTHERS TAKE CARE OF ME! (In some goofy existential way, one could consider that this was "why me”.)My husband made extra time for our children and rallied our schools and synagogue to help us. Food would always come on days that I had chemo. Friends and family would take my kids for the weekend so they wouldn’t have to be home when I was sickest and so I could rest without worrying if they were ok. I started getting massages and acupuncture every week. My kids started to help out around the house. 

The young mother I spoke to the other day is just beginning to experience this. Already her family is rallying around her and insisting that they be included and allowed to help! Her ex-husband had been wonderful, her parents, her siblings, children, friends, schools, etc. It is overwhelming to experience this kind of love and generosity, and in spite of dealing with a diagnosis of cancer, it inspires awe and freedom. “Perverse benefit!” "Why me?" We need to allow ourselves to be cared for, as well as reap the joy of caring for others.

On my 43rd birthday I was in the middle of chemo and stone cold bald. I was depressed and embarrassed and worried! My husband made reservations at a lovely hotel in Newport Beach where we had our own suite with a private enclosed pool. People who know me think this is kind of funny, because I’m the kind of person who you might think wouldn’t care about being bald--- I might see it as an opportunity to educate or make a statement! But NO! I felt even worse that I felt bad at all about something as superficial as my hair. The weekend was wonderful. I was on a roller coaster of feeling depressed about my cancer on the one hand and so grateful also to be alive on the other. The chemo was taking an exhausting toll on me. I felt low-grade nausea much of the time, and yet I was keenly aware of being deeply in love  with my husband, my children, my clients, flowers, food, music. I came to a conclusion that weekend that cancer is stupid, and life is brilliant. 

I spent that weekend in my husband’s arms. We swam in our little pool. We ate in our room, not out of my embarrassment mentioned above, but because with my profound realization that life truly is so very clearly poignantly awe-inspiringly brilliant, romance abounded. We fed each other, had wig-less sex, read to each other, and talked and whispered and giggled late into the night. I fell asleep dazed and more alive than ever—naked and vulnerable--- but awoke with a single strand of sparkling diamonds on my wrist. “Happy Birthday” says my ridiculously delicious husband! 

Life just goes on. We hit bumps. Cancer is a bump. It can be a little bump, or it can be a big fat bump---(bad cancer joke...sorry). Cancer is stupid and does not know to whom it is speaking. It did not single me out--- Of course I considered that it might have. It didn’t intentionally take the lives of two young Mommies I know. It’s hard to accept that cancer is stupid because we are left answerless with the “why me” question. It is, however, also access to our power. Embracing every life experience is. From moment to moment we create the context of our lives. We get to say if we invite our family and friends and community in, or if we suffer in silence. I advocate opening up and letting people and life in! It is our job to be smart and live our lives fully. For each of us this looks different, but for all of us the only time we know we have to live is NOW!

At the time I that I wrote this I had just celebrated my 22nd wedding anniversary. I bought 2 surfboards and took my husband surfing for the first time. We laughed and worked HARD and got knocked down and got up over and over again and hugged and kissed and tried again and again to get up on those waves!!! It didn’t matter that I couldn’t stand upright on my board yet, nor that my husband fell more than me. It mattered that we were out there falling, laughing, and loving each other; and that we just love picking ourselves up and trying again.

Cancer is so stupid! But we are not. Having cancer is a crash course in life! Newsflash: WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.  Usually we don’t know when we are going to die, but by and large we spend our lives in western culture fearing, dreading, and trying to ignore the ultimate imminence of death. Cancer scares us. It is like a flashing red neon sign that suggests we get our affairs in order and prepare to meet our end. One could consider that this is our gift. We must stand at the abyss when we are diagnosed with cancer and look out into the darkness of our fear and dread, and then there is a moment where you can actually laugh. There is a moment where you have the opportunity to take account of your life, and really begin to live newly. I was so sad and afraid to think I might die of cancer and leave my children who at that time were 13, 11, and 5. It came down to wanting to know I would be remembered and that I would have made a difference to my children. When I thought logically I knew the older two would have memories of me, but I was worried about my youngest. I was worried about how my children and family would recover after I died. I also knew that I was horrified at my vision of death which is that it is the end of the road and final. It was painful and scary to consider the end of the road. I hate to think of not existing; but that’s it. There’s nothing more. Stupid Cancer has been a great teacher. I don’t want to die, and I hope I don’t for a long time, but I know I will and that’s how it goes. My family WILL recover and move on and live on, and I won’t know the difference because I’ll be gone. It’s ok. It’s the way it goes--- Watch Lion King! Our contributions and being will live on in those we have touched.

 I speak to many people and it seems that the cancer survivors who are the happiest and most at peace are those who have come to a reckoning that although they have had Stupid Cancer and that the journey of life ultimately ends in death, life is now. Fearing the inevitable, the way I see it, is a waste of time and energy. We can be making a difference here and now, loving, laughing, and causing the things we are committed to. We can even be leaving a legacy for generations to come. Nothing stupid about that!

Sydney Sharon