Having lived through a long and savage chemotherapy regimen as recently as just eight months ago, I often find myself reflecting on what this has taught me. From the moment my legs buckled under me at being told my diagnosis, it has seemed imperative to me that it held a lesson. This surreal journey into such a frightening disease and its treatment had to have some other meaning, outside “just one of those things”. So what was the secret that I needed to learn here? Vulnerability? Impermanence? How would I be remembered? So many thoughts and feelings of what it could be swirled around my mind during those long 8 months of treatment. I prayed that over time the lessons would become apparent. Now, 8 months on, as I try to carry on with my old life as if it had not been suspended, as if I was the same me, I have many moments that I stop and tap into myself, and notice what comes up for me. What have I learned? One pervading feeling that mostly occupies my mind and heart these days is the separateness of cancer patients undergoing treatment. The seemingly parallel path to the rest of the world that exists from the moment of diagnosis, to the time that treatment spits them out at the other end. This separateness for me had two faces, both of which had something to teach me. One is an obvious physical separateness whereby each chemo treatment for those who suffered as I did, sees them in bed for 10 days out of 14 and the remaining 4 are spent in frailty not allowing much interaction with the outside world. Noises outside the bedroom window echo sounds of life, laughter, traffic, exhibiting so plainly the unknowing that those like me, were suffering. It told me that the hugeness of my struggle didn’t stop life going on. It was a painful realization but it taught me something to hold in my work as a therapist and more broadly as a human being … that on my best day it is someone’s worst, and on my worst, someone’s best. So in order for those days of struggle to have meaning, I needed to remember that whatever kind of day I now experience, there is always someone experiencing the opposite; and even though they are strangers to me, I want to stop and think of them so it matters. The second is the loss of one’s physical self. For me it was bloating, baldness, skin sores and paleness. Where once I was met with smiles and hellos, I became invisible. Sales people, strangers, fellow pedestrians, looked away from me. Whether it was because of shock or just my lack of relevance to the aesthetic world, for me it was palpable and sad. Not sad as much as you may expect because I was not seen. But sadder because I wondered for how long in my life had I treated others as invisible when it was difficult to look, when it challenged my sense of aesthetic normalcy. Had I? Sadly, I think I recognized this in myself. It occurred to me I had ironically chosen a profession where I valued a lack of judgment of people’s psychological selves as part of my role as a therapist, but how had I translated this into making sure I saw all physical carriages as relevant in my day to day life and not just in my life philosophy? I’m not sure. My own experience of invisibility reminded me that everyone’s heart beats the same, everyone has the same need for acknowledgment of their physicality, to be loved and thought of as a relevant part of others interactions and lives. I try so hard to “see” more today. To really be mindful of those around me, and when I feel myself wanting to look away, pull my eyes back and try and smile. It seems so little to do, but so important to those who have felt that absence, as I did. So looking back on “just one of those things”, the fear of that very scary disease and my ongoing terror of it ever returning, I’m grateful I can glean the gifts amongst all the weeds. Hopefully these lessons will serve to help me be a finer therapist and a more mindful and compassionate human being.
Super Contributor
Very nice words,and thoughts thanks for sharing, Cancer can bring a lot of physical and emotional change in a person.And change ones life priorities. kJ
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Hi Karina Having had cancer this year and indeed living in a parallel universe I can relate to what you are saying. I think too that the invisibility isn't just a physical thing although that can play a big part of course. I think people avoid friends and family with cancer coz it is a reminder that it can happen to them too. So as a cancer sufferer you are isolated because others prefer not to be confronted with even the reminder that if it can affect someone they know. its just 1 degree of separation from them. Before my diagnosis I thought I could empathise sufficiently to get what having cancer felt like. Boy was I wrong! Now I look around and think that many people have no clue while others I may see in public may be carrying the heavy burden of cancer and no one would know. Also after surgery it was hard to walk more than at snail pace or shop for grocery without looking like I was in slow mo. I think then of the times I have been inpatient with ppl when I was in a rush and it felt others were holding me up. How do I know they weren't suffering but they had no obvious physical disability or were aged? I didn't. So I am much more patient at the shops now and take a breath and realise I do not know their suffering. I find it an interesting phenomenon that those who have experienced deep suffering often have more ability and willingness for empathy. It is like a heavy curtain and once you are on the other side you somehow have more wisdom. But when ppl haven't had to face really tough stuff they have less willingness to see and engage with those who have. Cancer is a helluva way to get wisdom but it comes anyway and I have gained so much from this website in terms of learning their are heaps of ppl I may never meet but are there supporting while suffering.
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Occasional Contributor
Hi GHT, I was so moved by your response to my blog. It really is a knowing and we are unable to 'unknow' once having suffered from cancer. And more even than that. Surviving the treatments that sometimes can feel worse than the illness. Its so nice to connect with you, Karina
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Occasional Contributor
Thank you kJ. Very true.
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