I did not WANT cancer, but I would not CHANGE having it.

Stephen Colbert Singing in the Rain Photo Credit: GQ
Stephen Colbert Singing in the Rain Photo Credit: GQ

Yesterday I was reading the GQ cover story about Stephen Colbert and his new version of the late show. It covered some of his backstory that I wasn’t previously aware of, including the loss of his father and two older brothers at age 10. Towards the end of the discussion, Stephen brought up something that really resonated with me in terms of having and living past cancer.

 

“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” …

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest … “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”

 

Stephen’s philosophy, borrowed from Tolkien, nicely sums up the way that I have felt about my cancer for a long time: I did not WANT it, but I would not CHANGE it. 

Of course, I do not WANT to have had cancer when I was in college. It was awful and I would not wish that on anyone.

That being said, my life today (which I love) would not have happened if I had not gone through that ordeal. My best friends from college are my freshman roommates who stood by me during chemo. I would not have been as close to them without cancer. My decision to pursue a major that I loved, my decision to teach English in France after college, the delay in when I started drinking, the risks that I took and the decisions I made were all a direct result of the 12 months I spent in chemotherapy during freshman year.

For me, being grateful for the amazing life that has resulted is more natural – and more productive – than being bitter about going through the ordeal in the first place. Attitude is everything, both during treatment and after.

Which reminds me of another, more well-known, Tolkien quote (~1:55). During Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo turns to Gandalf and says “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide  is what to do with the time we are given to us.”

 

How do you feel about cancer now that you are past it? What have you decided to do with your time?

 

As always, would love to get your take in the comments. Feel free to ask a question and get updates by liking me on Facebook or following me on Twitter!

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Maybe it isn’t going to be okay

I came across this post today and I thought it beautifully addressed a number of the issues that come up when having to deal with loss and grief and death.

Telling people "It's going to be okay" is not helpful at all
Sheryl Sandberg and her husband Dave

Sheryl Sandberg, currently the COO of Facebook, was on vacation last month when her husband Dave died unexpectedly. Today, after the defined period of mourning in Judaism had ended, Sheryl posted a long message on Facebook. It is a touching piece that deals with mourning the sudden death of a loved one and how to move on after a tragedy.

What struck me the most, though, and what is most relevant for the blog, is her request that people stop telling her “It’s going to be okay.”

I totally agree with her.

People, in general, don’t know how to help when a tragedy occurs. No one knows what to say or what to do when their friend is diagnosed with cancer, when someone dies, when there’s a horrible accident and your life will never be the same. Everyone WANTS to help, but they don’t know how. They send you food or stuffed animals or nice-smelling soap (oh man, I got enough soap to last for YEARS when I was sick). They say nothing or they lapse into platitudes such as “It’s going to be okay.” or “At least it isn’t worse.” Neither of those responses are helpful.

Instead, what I wanted, what I needed, when I was sick was just a simple acknowledgement of the reality. “Yes, you have cancer and it sucks.” “Chemo sounds like a really shitty way to spend your summer break.” “There is a possibility that this could all go south and you could die.”

Obviously, focusing on the bad can be very debilitating and everyone needs to have hope in the future in order to continue fighting FOR that future. But a relentless dismissal of the currently-not-good situation is not helpful either. It minimizes the pain and hardship of the moment, despite the best intentions to help. Which is why, for years, I have tried to acknowledge other people’s bad news and offer normalcy and and open ear, rather than platitudes and forced movement forward.

“That sucks. What can I do?” is a way more helpful response than “It’s going to be okay.”

 

What do you think? What did you want to hear when you were first diagnosed?

 

As always, would love to get your take in the comments. Feel free to ask a question and get updates by liking me on Facebook or following me on Twitter!