Cancer Chronic Illness Essays

Cancer Was My Crucible, And It Made Me More Compassionate

The tragedies of illness can be agonizing to endure, but oftentimes, we come out the other side more loving people than when we went in.

If you saw my friend in the check out line at the grocery store with an expensive bottle of wine, you might feel envious. Jan is a traffic-stopper. Her facial features are perfectly symmetrical and her skin is dewy perfection. You might assume she’s on her way to a fancy dinner party with a better looking date than your husband.

When she came over yesterday, she wore a striking red tunic on her head with a matching red rose tucked behind her ear, a look only a movie star could pull off. It wasn’t one of those coverings that screams Breast Cancer in all caps like most head scarves do, no matter how cleverly they’re tied, piled, wrapped, or draped. Hers had the touch of a deliberate statement, a sense of style sported by a woman who can own any room she enters.

I couldn’t help contrasting her wrap with the one and only head cover I bought in anticipation of my own hair loss back when I got my diagnosis. The American Cancer Society website sold me a white cotton skullcap that looked good on the model, but I knew better than to have any faith in it even as I entered my credit card information. At the time, those scraps of cotton were offered at two for fifteen dollars or one for eleven, and I visualized an underpaid, overworked laborer cranking them out in a dimly lit factory for tightwads like me.

I’m not giving cancer an extra dime, I thought.

I’m not giving cancer an extra dime, I thought, and I ordered only one. It was comfortable but hideous, and I wore it all the time for nearly a year except when it was in the wash. My friend Rebecca sent me fun hats and a bright green wig, but I couldn’t find my playful side when it came to being bald, and trying to look glamorous hadn’t even occurred to me.

When Jan and her turban walked into my living room yesterday, I rushed to take her in my arms. We’ve met in person on only one other occasion, and it was just before she started treatment. Seeing her in person again overwhelmed me.

If it’s possible to touch grief, to taste it, to smell its fragrance, I would say that’s what I did when we embraced. After Jan’s first chemo session, she lost her child to suicide. On the morning of her daughter’s memorial service, Jan woke up with pneumonia. While we hugged, I brushed against the bottomless pit of her sorrow.

While we hugged, I brushed against the bottomless pit of her sorrow.

Looking at Jan’s manicured nails and curated outfit, no one would guess the depth of her suffering. It reminded me of a time in my life when I too endured a sustained season of grief.

During my twenties, my boss’s husband put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Then a friend with bi-polar disease killed his mother in a terrible psychotic episode. Shortly thereafter, my friend Bill, a guy who wore his homosexuality like a badge of honor, fatally overdosed on street drugs. My friend Kathy made an unsuccessful attempt on her life and then my friend Glenda lay down on the blind curve of a freeway until an unwitting motorist ended her painful existence. It seemed at the time that sadness had no floor, that my very survival required me to trudge through one brutal moment at a time. Most people saw the smile on my face and never knew about my struggle.

Sometimes back then I pictured God throwing rocks at me, his aim spot-on, his appetite unquenchable. I was in therapy for trauma I experienced as a child and the series of bad choices that trauma prompted me to take, choices that piled one miserable circumstance on another.

Now, I recognize that agonizing season developed my ability to feel compassion for others. The pain I endured then still helps me bond with others in need.

Now, I recognize that agonizing season developed my ability to feel compassion for others. The pain I endured then still helps me bond with others in need.

I don’t know how Jan will survive the loss of her daughter or the effort cancer demands from people it ensnares in its web. I only know that we have to be gentle, to love one another every chance we get.

First Corinthians reminds us that “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

Sometimes love feels as thin as a strand of dental floss, but it’s there, as undeniable as the rising sun in the morning, the stars at night, and the toil of the days. Ultimately, it’s all we have, and I’ve come to believe, no matter how difficult it is sometimes, that somehow, it’s enough.