8 Things I Learned from Having Cancer


Today marks one year since I completed treatments for breast cancer.  I had my last radiation treatment on April 24, 2012.

So today is a day of celebration, as well as a day of reflection about what I’ve learned.

Here’s my list of learnings:

1.  I’m not as big of a coward as I thought.  When I got my breast cancer diagnosis in September 2011, I told a friend that I was scared.  She asked, “Of what?  Needles, pain, illness, or death?”  Well, yes, all of the above.  After eight months of treatments with a lumpectomy in the middle, I confronted, sat with, was present to my fears of all four.  And I survived.  I still have fears of all four, but they’re not as strong.  And I know that, after having been through treatments and surgeries and lots of stickings, I can endure the first three.  Death still daunts me.  But not as much as it did.

2.  We are all connected.  Well, I already pretty much knew that, but my cancer journey gave me examples.  I was on prayer lists all over the world.  The Iona Community in Scotland prayed for me individually and in the healing service at The Abbey.  Friends and family and former students from all over prayed for me, sent good vibes, helped in my healing through positive energy.  The Internet and social media and blog sites kept me easily in contact with folks.  And folks supported me with messages and in person.

3.  Health care is essential but its professionals are not infallible.  I had the illusion that people in the medical field were all very knowledgeable and caring.  The truth is, as in every other field, some are and some aren’t.  I’m grateful for the ones who are – and especially the ones who are both.

4.  I can ask for help.  I’m a person who is pretty independent.  I like to do things myself.  Asking for help doesn’t come easily, but I found that during treatments, I needed to ask for help from others.  Yes, sometimes I felt like a burden, but I found that people generally like to help.  And I sure appreciated the many ways people found to help me.  They got me through a tough time.

5.  The unknown may be good or bad, and worrying won’t help.  I used to be a big worrier.  Not that I’ve completely quit, but I worry much less than I did pre-cancer.  I often looked at the future with trepidation.  “What might go wrong?   How can I avoid that?”   Now I know that sometimes things go wrong, sometimes they go swimmingly.  Worry won’t change that.  My being in the Now and not worrying about the unknown is the best path.  And actually, “good” and “bad” are just words.  They don’t really mean anything.  Good can ultimately be bad.  And vice versa.

6.  I can let go more and more.  I tend to want to hang on – to things, to people, to ideas, to the way things are, to the way I want life to be.  Cancer told me that is the wrong approach.  Hanging on can make me miserable.  Cancer made me let go of the idea that I was healthy and pretty invincible.  It made me let go of my ideas about illness and recovery.  It made me let go of dread.  It’s making me let go of time frames.  Though I still find myself grasping, my grip is looser.

7.  We really don’t understand healing.  Why do some people heal and others don’t?  We don’t know.  Doctors know a lot, but they don’t know, either.  Attitude may be a part of it, but there are wonderful people with good attitudes who don’t heal.  Or at least don’t heal in the way we typically  think healing should work.  Perhaps we’re all on the road to healing – in myriad different ways.  I trust a higher power and bigger picture in that.

8.  Gratitude is essential.  Life on this earth is a gift.  I didn’t earn it.  So many things are beautiful, and each day is full of them.  I appreciate that much more now.

So today I reflect and nurse this stomach bug I have (a reminder of how bad I felt during the treatments?), and tomorrow I make a little retreat trip to one of my favorite spiritual places (if I feel well enough).  I have with me these eight learnings in this celebratory, contemplative time.  Namaste.

(Photos from my trip to The Pocket in Walker County, GA about 10 days ago).

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5 thoughts on “8 Things I Learned from Having Cancer

  1. I feel as though I’ve partly traveled this road with you, and it has taught me as well. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your journey. All best wishes as you move forward in your life’s travels.

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