A friend of mine has really been struggling lately. She lost her brother to cancer a few years ago, and he would have turned 31 on October 28th, the day after my own birthday. Cancer runs in my friend's family. She's already lost numerous other family members to cancer so early in life, and many of them living today have also tested positive genetically that makes a particular type of cancer almost inevitable. My friend, however, did not test positive for this particular cancer linked gene to her great relief, but which has also brought out terrible 'survivor's guilt' feelings in full force. Where there's so much love there's also transference, and I know she feels the cancer related fears of her family members as her own, in addition to still having other cancer scares of her own!
A snippet of our exchange, posted with permission.
DLG: I'm so happy that you have come through to the other side of your ordeal. I think of people like you and my brother everyday. I can't even begin to imagine. I'm terrified just to get in your heads for a minute. I just had a moment an hour ago. I've been waiting for biopsy reports for two moles I had removed (I've had many atypical moles removed over the years and both my dad and my sis have had skin cancer). Of course I leave the house without my phone to drop the kids off at school and doc calls. No message. Heart pounding, worst thoughts as I wait on hold. Doc is on phone with another patient. I cry, think of [my husband] and the kids over and over and cry some more. Finally, nurse hears my desperation (okay, full on heart attack, hysteria) and gets the okay to tell me mole on back is moderately abnormal but all margins are clear. No cancer. First thing I thought of, besides [my husband] and the kids and my thankfulness to God....my brother, my siblings and family members who have the stupid fucking [withheld] gene, you and people like you, all the people who won't get the same call as me.
I do need to work on the survivors guilt, when's my luck up, I'm next, mentality. It's very hard. Because I've been faced with so much death at a young age, I believe it has me always looking over my shoulder. And especially when I "dodged" the faulty gene bullet. I know I'm always thinking "okay, this is it, brace yourself". I did it this morning. I have to work on that. It's not a healthy not happy way to live.
I'm so grateful and I'm so sorry that you ever had to go through what you did and are still going through. Keep writing, for you and for all of us. Keep telling us so we don't forget for one second what it could be like. People get complacent. You know the danger in that. Keep telling them, because every time I read your posts I get perspective and empathy. I never want to be anything but grateful to be here. Thanks for the e-hug. Sending one back!
My friend lamented about the damage cancer had already done to her, and how it had reshaped her life and robbed her of so much joy despite never having had it. She wondered how someone who actually had cancer could even begin to cope with so much uncertainty.
This is how.
Accept that you have no control. My friend has never actually have cancer, so it's not actually cancer that's terrorizing her life, but rather the uncertainty and complete lack of control that cancer is presenting that's doing so. We all want to believe that we have so much control over our lives, but when you hear or even fear those words, "you have cancer", it takes all of that away. In a moment life can change, and someone that you love and care about can be taken from you. It matters not whether it's cancer, a disease, or a terrible accident or tragedy, as these are all things we fear and have no control over. We wrestle in our minds over the belief that we actually have control, but it's a losing battle when the circumstances of life prove irrefutably that we don't.
I know what it feels like to hear those terrible three words, "you have cancer", and just how quickly and easily it all happened. Having been there, I'd been torn apart inside at the fear of something happening to others in my family. I wanted to believe so badly that I had some ability to control life or protect them, but you have no defense against such things. As life progressed after cancer through my survivorship years, through recurrence scares when I thought for sure "this was it" and that I was going to die, through depression and post-traumatic stress, and through the deaths of numerous cancer warrior brothers who did die, I finally came to the realization and full acceptance that we have no real control in life. It had been an illusion all along. It was a tough pill to swallow, but enough tears helped to finally finally wash this terribly painful lesson down.
We have no control. This is how life really is.
Once you fully accept and buy into this complete lack of control in life, what would you do? What changes would you make in your life to adjust for to this new reality?
Live, love, laugh, and enjoy life like crazy. Fully accepting that anybody you love can be taken from you at any moment is what unlocks your ability to love them, enjoy them, and appreciate them like crazy everyday. Tell someone in your life that you love them for the first time, if you've been afraid. What are you waiting for? Tomorrow could be too late. Tell a friend how much you love and appreciate them, the difference that they've made for you, and how much you've appreciated their presence in your life. Laugh together, cry together, and let the tears flow. Bond, love, embrace, and enjoy such a moment together. Say that you're sorry to someone that you know you've hurt, and offer forgiveness to those that had really hurt you. You know all of those things you might do when you're on your death bed, those last words and last wishes? Why wait until that point? Do this today while you're still living. Free your heart and soul of such pain and resentment. Why carry this through life? Don't be afraid. Release such terrible feelings so that you can live life fully today.
When I wake up in the morning, I have such incredibly powerful puppy dog like feelings of love and adoration for a wife that's really been there for me. My God, what a blessing and what a gift to have in life. I love her and appreciate her like crazy every day, and I always try my best to show it. When I drop my kids off at school in the morning, I give them a hug, and I really hug them. Will something terrible happen to them today? Everyday I pray no, but I hug them as if the answer could be yes, because I know that it could be. My God, do I love my children. Such beautiful young souls that I've been blessed with, and I just love taking every bit of them in. And from there, I'm just getting warmed up.
Make plans, go places, do things, with your family, with your friends, or anyone that you love, and whose presence you've appreciated in your life. Keep a full schedule, and never let a moment go to waste. I've never really lived life like I was dying, but there was a period of time when that's about how my life felt, and is pretty much how we lived. If my time was really coming, I wanted to live the best possible life that I could in the time that I had left. We haven't ever really stopped, and found some friends for life while in the process. One weekend we're up in the mountains, the next weekend we're at the beach, and the following weekend we're enjoying a fantastic dinner at some swanky place down in DC with beloved friends, living and enjoying and cherishing every second of it.
Heaven is not a place but a state. Create your heaven on Earth by living and loving in your life like crazy today. Release all of the pain from your soul, and fill it up with love and joy instead.
All of the fantastic trip and vacay photos, and all of the smiles, the love, and the laughter that friends have seen have all been real. We've been living and loving and enjoying life to the max, but most have never had any idea of just how much I had still been hurting inside, because I was still so afraid. What if something happens? What if my next scans don't come out clear? What if I don't make it? What's next? What's at the end? What do I even believe in?
I'm so blessed to have had numerous friends looking out for me spiritually, who invited me to their churches when they knew I had been struggling. You have to believe in something, and not knowing what I believed in was the source of a lot of fear and anxiety within me. I grew up in a Christian church-going household, but I never felt the essence of the religion in my heart and soul. Organized religions haven't ever worked for me, and I saw and felt the conflicts in all of them. I felt torn between my Christianity by birth and my wife's Buddhism, part of the challenge of a multi-cultural household. Which was the path forward? What was I supposed to believe in?
The answer is, whatever you feel in your heart.
My wife and I have both seen and experienced things in our lives and over our 19 years together that have been suggestive of what comes next, that something or someone is out there watching over us, and that there is something next. I knew what I felt and believed inside, but it wasn't aligned with any major religion, and didn't know how to connect all of the dots together. It was the fascinating story and experiences of cancer survivor and author Anita Moorjani, who died of her cancer but was able to come back, that finally helped me to connect all of those dots. She had felt the same things, and had felt torn in her life in the same ways! I wasn't alone after all, and no longer felt "wrong" or conflicted for believing in what I did. I don't think I believe in something today, I know I believe in something.
It matters not weather my beliefs fully align with any major religion or not. It's my spiritual journey, it's what I feel, and it's what I believe in, and it's brought me great comfort. If you have any beliefs such as these, bring them all in so that they can help to heal you, and take away another layer of this anxiety. Finally being able to affirm what I believed in took the wind out of the sails of my fears of death, of my cancer coming back, and is what has allowed me to finally live my life without fear, and without apology.
4. Lather, Rinse, Repeat
This takes time, and it takes practice. It's not so easy to give up on beliefs that we've held dear for potentially decades of our lives. You can't half-ass any of this. You can't kind of accept that we have no control, you can't kind of live, and you can't kind of believe. You have to go ALL IN with all of it, because it's only full acceptance at one step that enables the next. It's only fully accepting and embracing the fact that we have no control that releases your mind from the struggle of fighting for the illusion of such control in the first place. When you cut free every last thread of these old beliefs, suddenly your mind is free and fully focused on the moment, when it's made to understand that there might not be a next one.
In my years after cancer, I had to give up on the belief that I would age gracefully, that I would make it to the big milestones in life such as turning 40, 50, and beyond, seeing my kids grow up, and walking my daughter down the aisle. Retirement? As a young adult cancer survivor, that cloud over our heads never really goes away. Because I had cancer once, I'm at elevated risk for all sorts of other cancers. Because I went through very toxic treatments to cure my cancer, even that elevates my risk for other cancers. My mind was fighting to hold onto the belief that I would live a healthy life, but I had to let go of that. There were too many risks, and too many pitfalls. I knew it might not be true for me. I cut that last thread that my mind was holding onto away. You panic and free fall for awhile, but eventually you find your footing, and gain a new approach and new philosophy by which you're going to live your life.
Step 1. I'm not healthy, I might not make it to even 40, I might not get to see my kids grow up or walk my daughter down the aisle. I have no control over this. What do you do? Step 2. Live, love, laugh, and enjoy life like crazy today. Never let a day or a moment go to waste. Step 3. Believe, in something. Relax about what comes next. Worrying about what comes next takes away from our abilities to enjoy today. We're here to enjoy life. It's only going all in, accepting, living, and believing, that allows you to maximize your potential in life, and to create your heaven on Earth.
Life asked death, “why do people love me but hate you?”, death responded, “because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.”
A cancer survivor friend of mine, Mark De Raismes, found this quote a gave it quite a bit of thought. This is what he had to say.
"I'm reminded almost daily of friends that have lost loved ones way too soon. I'm reminded almost daily of those I care about that have faced or are facing that painful truth. I remember clearly facing that truth myself. I'm not even sure what I'm trying to say here except maybe, live people. Truly try your best to really live. I think it's only a beautiful lie if you ignore the painful truth, and the truth is only painful if you ignore it." - MDR
This is brilliant, and I couldn't agree more. I didn't want to believe this painful truth about life, but fully accepting it is what has made my life more beautiful than its ever been.
Dedicated to my friend, DLG.