I have stage IV terminal cancer. It has deeply enriched me. Are you wondering about my mental stability at this point? Let me reassure you, I believe cancer is a thief and a murderer. I hate it with the utmost passion and intensity. But lately, I’ve been able to see through it a little better. Looking past the dark veil of this disease, there is some brightness shimmering out at me.
Maybe the best way to put it is to say cancer is a hideous disease that can bring forth much good in our lives. Yes, it leaves your body in tatters over time. But it’s also, “a dark road to mercy.” I think that’s because there’s always a greater Reality to be discovered behind it (and all our troubles in this life, for that matter), if we have eyes to see. Looking beyond it, I’m learning that cancer, in its horror, is also a door to some very good gifts. Here’s one of them:
Cancer reminds me that life is ultimately beyond my control.
Does this thought terrify you as much as it does me? To be out of control, particularly of your body, is a frightening thing. For those of us so afflicted, cancer doesn’t stop there. It also brings the specter of death into our lives. It destroys the illusion that we have ultimate control over our circumstances or even the very length of our lives. I shudder at the thought.
I read an article in the NY Times recently about a man who was confronted with his own mortality when he realized that, based upon the number of staples he had in his office and the rate in which he was using them, the staples were going to outlive him. As he put it, “Nothing says mortality like the realization that you will live only long enough to use up 3.2 percent of your office supplies.”
In a culture that is obsessed with appearances, a diagnosis of cancer quickly crushes any illusions of control that we might have. It dis-illusions us in the best sense of the word. I don’t in any way mean that fighting back against this evil is inappropriate or wrong (responsibility is different than control). Nor do I mean that there aren’t environmental and personal causalities for cancer (asbestos and smoking come to mind).
But what if cancer shows up at your door, walks into your house, and makes itself at home for no particular reason at all? That’s what happened to me. It’s like being taken hostage by someone intent on killing you – slowly. Some days he does nothing, but he’s always there, slinking around, looking for new rooms to move into. Get the picture?
One possible response to this intruder is angry fatalism. After all, “shit happens” in this world, doesn’t it? But behind this statement of bravado is a toxic brew churning through your veins. Long before the cancer kills you (if it, in fact, does), this mindset will allow your heart to be eaten up by bitter hopelessness. You’ll think that ugly bumper sticker, “Life is hard. Then you die,” is the truest thing about you – and the world. Or how about the below twist on it? A little better, perhaps?
However shocking it is, though, losing (the illusion of) control of your life to the extent that you are confronted with your own mortality is ultimately a good thing, I have learned. Yes, it can take you to a terrible place, but it can also galvanize you to make a better, harder choice – to pursue courage, hope, faith and yes, even laughter for as long as you have to live on this earth. I’m not talking about embracing stoicism or cheap religious platitudes here, but instead believing that cancer will never have the final word in your life.
It’s interesting, this choice we are given. It’s almost as if the shaping of our souls as we are forced to choose between living in a random, hostile world or to trust in Someone whose ways are beyond our comprehension is a really big deal. Bigger even than our comfort or the length of our lives. Think of it this way: when your circumstances are good, nothing much is required of you. When suddenly, everything is out of your control, you get to find out who you truly are and even become, perhaps, who you have always wanted to be.
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.” ~ Anne Lamott
Thank you, cancer. I hate you, but thank you.
P.S. Oh, apparently, I need 20,000 more platelets. If you have any to spare, would you mail them to me? Immediately? I promise to return them.