There are things about cancer that only cancer patients comprehend and fully understand. And because of that, there are things about cancer that us surviviors wish you knew.
Cancer is something I felt to the aboslute depths of my bones and it has recently become somewhat of a distant memory for me. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve intentionally blocked a lot of it out, and I truly never, ever thought I might feel a certain way about cancer being a distant memory. But I’ve found myself almost longing to understand why and what it is exactly that cancer has done to me as a wife, friend, daughter, and sister and I’m desperate to maintain the intensity of life and love it stirred up in my soul.
The further I move away from my cancer journey and that special hell I survived, it has started to seem less real at times. That’s a good thing right? Ehhh kind of. I don’t EVER want to relive what I went through. Ever. But I also don’t want to forget what it felt like, what it taught me, and the depths of emotion and compassion that I’ve found for those facing the same thing.
Most of the time I feel like I walked away from cancer with a fierce passion for living and understanding people and what makes them who they are. I’ve mended bridges with people I never dreamed to before cancer and these days, I tend to say things that I might not have said before cancer, both good, bad, and somewhat inappropriate and I’m good with that. Other times I feel like I lost parts of me that people relied on as steady constants and parts that helped them feel secure about my life on earth, and I don’t like it.
In processing where I stand in my journey now that the get-well, healing phase is pretty much over, there are bits of my heart that need sharing. Parts that have frustrated me, parts that have satisfied me, and parts that I just need you to try and understand. The things I wish I could look you all in the eyes and say.
So, here goes…
Acceptance is something I struggle with a good bit (just ask my husband how many conversations we’ve had on that topic), and this phase of the journey has been particularly hard for me. Whether it’s how many page views I get on this blog, how many people actually care to read what I write, how many followers I have on my related social media accounts, or how many people have chosen to take themselves out of my life for whatever reason, I’ve realized that people view you different during/after diagnosis than before when you were “normal.”
Yesterday evening, I attended UAB’s Head and Neck Survivor Support group we put on every other month. Pastor Malcolm Marler from pastoral care was the featured guest and one of the questions he asked us about acceptance and what that meant to us. Several of the other survivors spoke about what it took for them to find acceptance of the journey they’re on, but for me (being the youngest in the room by a longshot) the question struck me as more about the acceptance I feel from people now that I’m a “survivor.”
It’s true that I’ve found that some people are less understanding and accepting when it comes to seeing their friends in a different state than they’re used to seeing them in (and I’m not saying this is a conscious thought). It’s a situation that potentially makes them realize their own mortality, which was one of the hardest parts for me. At some point in all of our lives we will pass away. It’s a natural part of life but if you’re anything like me, I was happy assuming that I was going to live to be 80+ and just die of old age someday. And that’s still a pretty real possibility by the way. I indeed had cancer in my body, but that doesn’t mean I’m stepping foot into heaven any faster than anyone else. I’m still the same ole goofy, sarcastic, and ridiculous Valerie. I just had a different, slightly scarier detour to traverse than some.
The more I learn about cancer and the perceptions that people have about it (general public as well as medical professionals) the more I want to wear a sign pimped out with flashing lights and my entire diagnosis and heart on it.
Someone once told me to “never try and understand cancer. It’s impossible.” And I still think those are wise words, but everyone tries. The instinct when a diagnosis comes is to figure out why and what you could have done to prevent it. I wanted to Google everything and figure out what my chances were and what might be coming, but Google simply isn’t God and doesn’t know (and thankfully my husband stopped me). Google is for sure a useful tool, but it’s one packed full of information and very little knowledge. It especially doesn’t know about my particular case, so I quickly learned that fighting my instincts and ditching the need for a “why” and relying on prayer and the plan that the Lord has for me, is a far better use of brain power.
There are a few things I do understand though. First of all, the Lord didn’t plan cancer for me, but it was never a surprise to Him. Was I mad at Him for a while that I had to go through it? A million times yes, but I Would. Not. Have. Made. It without His provision, His love when I was unlovable, and His absolute strength and mercy on my heart.
Secondly, I have strong feelings in my heart that this journey was given to me to bless others in some way that may be facing similar paths or others that have already been through cancer and haven’t dealth with the emotional side of it all yet. It’s why I continue to write words that may or may not be read. And it’s why I try my best to provide perspective and relateable words.
Lastly, my cancer wasn’t caused by anything specific. I don’t have HPV (human papillomavirus), I’ve never smoked, I’ve never been drunk (however I do enjoy a drink on occasion), and I live an extraordinarily lame life to be honest. It’s true I have a genetic mutation in my gene line, but there’s no solid proof that caused anything either. What’s the cause really matter anyway? The fact I had to go through it wouldn’t have miraculously disappeared just because I figured out why.
It is, indeed, saddening and often devasting when someone we know and love is diagnosed with cancer. There are moments in those times to cry, to mourn certain things (not necessarily the person), and times to lend a hand or heart and let them know you’re there for them and you care. Those needs are real and crucial. Alone is not a place you want to be through cancer.
When someone earns the title survivor after patient, the journey doesn’t end. They may have fewer doctors appointments, look healthier (or even like nothing happened), but fear of recurrence will always be real and scars and various other reminders will always be there to remind us that life got really scary at one point. This is why I will unapologetically tell you to ask how your friends and family are doing and not be scared of the hard answer they might give you.
Ask them about the hard times. Ask them about the ways life is still hard or what’s scary about the future still. There are plenty of people that won’t want to talk but it’s actually kind of therapeutic to talk about it. Most of all, just be a friend and listen. No one expects you to have answers or wisdom about whatever they tell you. They likely just need that feeling of understanding and acceptance…simple compassion.
So, cancer is confusing. Some days are still hard, even if it’s less than it used to be. Be a friend. Give grace. And be open.
Onward and upward.