I am chatting with a friend, and she notices I am still stressing the ‘small stuff’ and being disappointed about some people in my life. “You’re still angry at those situations, huh,” she says, surprised to hear me complain. She thought that, after my cancer diagnosis, those things would no longer occupy space in my mind, but they still do. I guess I didn’t learn my lesson from cancer.
“It’s OK,” she says. “I’d probably be doing the same thing post-cancer, continuing to waste my time.” (One of these days I need to write about the concept of “wasting time” – who defines this anyway?) So I reply, “I hope you would. I wouldn’t want you to pretend to please other people.”
She then tries changing the subject because she says I’ve been acting ‘confrontational’ recently. I disagree. What’s wrong with speaking my mind, especially when I’m being judged by someone who hasn’t walked my path? I’ve tried to excuse these people by thinking “they mean well.” But I now realize this approach has been distracting me from the real issues.
People expect us to be transformed after cancer — otherwise, we are failing as human beings. I believe we should tell people when they are being unreasonable, judgmental or unkind, even if those aren’t their intentions. I understand many patients don’t do this because of the fear of losing support. I’ve felt that way too. So yes, we will probably lose some friendships along the way, but do we really need friends who are unwilling to hear us out? Who wants a relationship where you aren’t allowed to be yourself?
But getting back to my ‘unlearned lessons’, I guess I am a stubborn student. I got an “F” in cancer class. So often, it seems that when a person is facing a tragedy, others think the experience should ‘straighten up’ the person’s life. Some people expect you to learn something from illnesses and other bad situations because they believe these things happen for a reason — one reason being you’ve been misbehaving in some way, and you need a little spanking from life. I can even picture some family members saying to each other, “cancer didn’t teach Rebecca <insert lesson>!” Teach me what exactly? What lesson do they think I should have learned from cancer? The lesson THEY want me to learn? I wonder if my cancer taught THEM anything.
Now let me be clear. I respect other patients who feel they’ve learned something from their diagnosis — those who consider the experience to be a self-transformation event for the better. As long as it is better for the patient, it’s all good. And yes, there’s definitely some level of transformation after cancer, but every person’s experience is different. I am not saying I am completely the same person I used to be. I am not — just as I wasn’t the same person 10 years ago that I was 15 years ago, long before my diagnosis.
I also realize in some ways I am still the same person I always have been. I stress the small stuff. I hate drama and try to stay away from it. Sometimes I create my own. I dread my unhappy associations with winter. I have little patience. I complain, even about Tamoxifen, the cancer treatment I should be grateful for because I am lucky to have that option. Still, the collateral damage is brutal. But these characteristics are what make me human.
Am I not allowed to be human anymore? I’ve already lost enough because of cancer.
I had never thought about lessons I should have learned from my cancer until people made me think of them. I do reflect on life in general but it never occurred to me that cancer was meant to make me a super hero and able to tolerate everything life throws at me. Why not just let me cope the best way that I can and respect me for it? Allow me to figure out some new normalcy. How about using kindness as a way to contribute to my healing instead of building unreasonable expectations that you yourself aren’t even sure you could meet, because you haven’t been there?
Pretending I am someone I’m not does not help my situation. Suppressing my feelings and emotions won’t heal me. People who judge my behavior during my most vulnerable moments are only thinking of themselves. I have walked away from such people and situations that make me unhappy. Those are the situations I DO have control over.
I worry about patients who are too preoccupied with what others would think of them if they don’t meet the post-cancer societal expectations. I’d tell those patients to stay true to themselves if that would make their lives easier. It certainly makes survivorship more tolerable for me. I’ve also been lucky to find people who are willing to listen without judging me. You might too.