Reflecting on the unexpectedly positive aspects of the direct and and indirect experience of cancer
You must think I am deranged to even think about writing an article about the positive aspects of going through cancer.
After all, this is a hideous disease which plunges your life into uncertainty and can often only be tackled with life-changing surgical and chemotherapeutic intervention, inflicting long-term psychological and emotional damage on those lucky enough to survive.
However, it is a peculiar fact that people do often derive some positives from the experience of cancer.
To cite American writer William Finnegan, “a lot of cancer patients and survivors report that they never really lived until till they got cancer, that it forced them to face things, to experience things more intensely”.
Or, as my therapist puts it, “cancer takes away – but it also gives.”
Talking to survivors, as well as drawing on my own experience, cancer does bring about a heightened appreciation of life and living. Even as you fear that it will all slip away from you, you are conscious of the value and meaning and beauty of life, to a degree that is far removed from humdrum everyday existence.
Seeing the world in technicolour
A friend explained this to me on a walk round Wimbledon Common: before she had cancer, she saw everything in drab blacks and whites and grays. Once the cancer struck, everything became more brightly coloured – and stayed that way for a long time until the cancer was a long way behind her.
By that time, she had completely changed her life – divorced, changed jobs and had a completely new circle of friends from the time B.C. – before cancer.
Another friend went through lung cancer. She is a journalist, used to casting a critical eye on people in authority.
She remembers driving home from the doctor’s appointment when she was first given the diagnosis, feeling sick with worry. “I felt that I was lugging home a horrible wound and I’d have to tell my kids and husband – I was a bearer of bad news to people who are perfectly healthy and I felt such a failure.”
After her family rallied round, and she had processed initial shock, she was overwhelmed by the kindness of those around her: the GP who took the trouble to call her up after the diagnosis, the nurse who held her hand, the surgeon’s incredible empathy.
“I knew it was a bad sign when on the morning of the operation, the surgeon sat on my bed.
“’I know you are frightened,’ he said, ‘but honestly, I do this every day of the week. You will feel beaten up and bruised but you will be fine.”
Depression can be worse than cancer
She was indeed fine, except that the tamoxifen she was prescribed led to terrible side-effects of depression and anxiety. She even considered suicide, before she came off the drug and got better.
“If anyone asked, would you have depression again, or cancer, I’d have cancer every time.”
The cancer experience set her off on a personal journey of discovery as she re-evaluated everything about her life. She was in her fifties when the disease struck, and a very successful Fleet Street journalist, but suddenly none of the trappings of a successful career seemed to matter at all, compared to friends, family and meaningful work
“I look back now to where I was before cancer and I really think I didn’t know anything,” she says now. “I was a little girl thinking that a big by-line on an article was a big deal but measuring my life by by-line and achievement was all very ephemeral.”
She says now that she would not chose to go back to her pre-cancer self, an astonishing statement that shows how powerful the disease can be me in motivating personal change.
Of course, you may come to realise that your family is the most important thing in your life, but the strains caused by the disease may break up the family. Or you may lack the means to transform your life, and you have to go back to the dreary day job with a renewed sense of its total pointlessness
To take one more example: a woman whose husband went through a bone marrow transplant, and who was therefore at risk for a long time, was overcome by the kindness of the neighbours in the American suburb where they lived. Friends flocked by, leaving meals, ferrying kids to school, helping her to make the punishing hospital vigil.
Understanding the meaning of love
She is a committed Christian, but until this episode, she now recalls, love was a kind of abstraction. The kindness of her neighbours and acquaintances have given her a powerful and practical understanding of love as a force for good in her daily life.
We need not share her religious conviction, to know something of that she means. I think British people are not so demonstrative as Americans under such circumstances, but still, to the extent that friends and acquaintances rally round: that is a positive experience.
I was very touched, for example, to hear that some complete strangers at the local church, which I’d attended the sum total of once for Midnight Mass or similar, were praying for my recovery.
Let’s not get carried away: cancer is not exactly something you would wish upon yourself or your loved ones. But seeing life in technicolour for a while, and getting to re-evaluate what’s important and what is trivial, does offer some consolation.
Readers will have noticed that all the case studies are of women. If there are men out there who would like to talk about their feelings about cancer, please get in touch.