Today is a great day. It's my first day home after receiving my radioactive iodine treatment for Thyroid Cancer.
As I sit in my bed sipping a much-celebrated cup of Chai, listening to the birds chirp outside my window, it feels so good to be alive, to feel everything I feel in this moment.
I still vividly remember the call from my Endocrinologist, "You have Thyroid Cancer and I have to remove your lymph nodes and your thyroid," he said. Then he went on to say, "You'll also need radioactive iodine treatment to kill off any left over Cancerous tissue post operation."
The last surgery I had was when I was 10; I had no idea what this meant for my life. I was now 27, employed and a recent graduate. I remember thinking as I sat in my car stunned; everything had just begun, how now could life come to such a bitter halt? Little did I know, that this year as hard as it was, would improve my life.
Cancer isn't normally something to be thankful for, but ultimately through the experience I learned some timeless truths. I will not be the last young person to receive a cancer diagnosis, and to those of the future I offer this, hoping to clear the road that you too will walk down. I don't write this to make light of the tragedy, pain and sorrow that is the experience of cancer for many and their families. I am not ignorant of that sorrow. Yet, there is another side of the experience that can lend itself to inspiration and transformation.
Here are three things cancer taught me:
1. On hearing the news and how to react.
Advice: Cultivate respect.
The state of a person: chemically, biologically, emotionally, psychologically, financially, socially, and in every other way changes upon receiving a Cancer diagnosis. Honor that struggle. Honor their individuality, and their unique circumstance. Do not respond with slogan or cliché. You are now in a position, whether you like it or not, where your words seriously matter and your tact is paramount. The worst response you could offer is to say or do nothing and a close second is to deny them their feelings and experiences. Responses like: "You should have taken better care of yourself!" "You're too young to be going through this." "Stay strong." "People in your family live long don't worry." "All my friends are getting sick." "Your negativity is making people not want to be around you." "Buck up you have a the good cancer." "At least you get to keep your hair!" "Stop playing the sick card " are all emotionally illegitimate, ignorant and completely unacceptable, and they stupefy and scar the person battling cancer.
If you are in the position of needing to craft a response to a new diagnosis, take your time to react and cultivate respect. Evaluate yourself, your emotions, and put them aside. This is a situation that is not about you, or the ailments you have/had, or the ones that your family members have/had. In this particular situation, you are the periphery and the person with cancer is central because this is their experience. Realize the opportunity you have to impact someone's life, and having respect for his or her journey is a great place to begin.
2. On the power of playing your part.
Advice: Engage oneself. Engage death.
Getting cancer highlighted interesting cultural and societal psychology surrounding death. When I was being forced to engage my mortality in a profound way, many of those around me reacted as if they had a choice in the matter. As if my sickness somehow protected their wellness. Most people don't want to be in the presence of someone who might die, but I really recommend experiencing that, because it will help us learn about how to engage death.
To be fair, I never prepared myself for death before getting cancer, but I have now and I believe there are two great secrets in that preparation, which enrich life. One is that contemplating death lends itself to practicing being present. The other is that it teaches a profound degree of listening and empathy skills. Being present places value on time. Engaging in empathy and listening can emphasize the moment. The greatest of moments in the human experience are life and death, we will all experience both and in different ways, but through ignoring death we're missing amazing opportunities in the very tender, meaningful moments of life that connect us to one another.
3. On post treatment and what to expect.
Advice: Practice patience.
Cancer is biology and chemistry and treatment is painful. Cancer is emotional; a battle of the body and spirit. Grounding oneself through the journey is almost impossible. You are dragged through it. Finding community can be tough. Many blogs are where the wounded vent, many YouTube videos capture only a glimpse into another's experience that may not be relatable and cancer support groups are not always available. By and large those struggling with cancer don't know how to do it "right." Similarly, there are vey few breaks where we can grab a chance to regroup ourselves in order to forge forward with strength. Life doesn't stop to make it easier on us.
It will take survivors time to learn how to move forward, how to develop their identities, how live, and how to communicate their experience. Accept your inability to relate. Accept their strengths and weaknesses. Let them grieve. Let them express themselves, regardless of how negative. Don't deny or minimize them and what they've been through. Don't doctor them without a medical license. Don't make their experience about you. Don't expect them to be the same person they were. Remain open to who they're becoming. Be patient with them and most importantly, make sure to find ways to express your love, friendship or kinship.