When I was going through my treatment for cancer there was an evening when my spouse told me about an unusual sensation in his right leg. For several days it had felt as though cold water was being poured on his foot and calf. It sounded like some form of neuropathy to me and I told him so.
Unfortunately for him, I chose that moment to climb up on my soapbox and announce, “the one thing I have learned since my cancer diagnosis is that ANYTHING can happen to ANYONE at ANYTIME.”
I then went on to list the possibilities, all of them bad: car accident; stroke; heart attack; cancer; ALS; financial ruin; being caught in a hotel room as a cyclone goes through. You get the picture.
He begged me to stop and added that he thoroughly regretted mentioning his leg to me. And then we laughed.
It is however no laughing matter, because it is true. It is life, and in a single moment we go from this to that. It’s not always so dramatic as the items I mentioned and it can also be worse. Our life can change radically in one moment, through no fault of our own.
I believe that part of the shock and the pain we suffer from goes beyond the event itself, which is already enough to cope with. The disbelief we are left with is often that we could never have imagined “this thing” happening to “us.”
We can imagine them happening to others. We know that is true. But in our heart of hearts we believe ourselves to be exempt from the unacceptable.
The important thing to add to this very universal experience of life, however, is this:
You can handle it
As Oliver Burkeman (my current favourite writer) says: “you’ll cope.”
“I Will Never Do Chemotherapy”
The Stoics are known for thinking through the worst possible outcomes in life so they won’t be taken by surprise. As Burkeman points out, however, there are limitations in what all you include:
“It risks implying that nothing catastrophically bad could ever really happen. Whereas the anxious person knows, if only subconsciously, that it could. Public humiliation won’t kill you, but in fact it’s always the case that the next hour or week or month could contain a bereavement, a terrible accident, or a shattering medical diagnosis. So the attempt to reassure yourself that nothing too appalling is coming down the pike will always run up against the gnawing realization that actually you can’t be sure.”
Take an unexpected cancer diagnosis. I had thought through many possibilities that could rain down on me, but breast cancer wasn’t one of those. No family history, no lifestyle factors, no symptoms, no risks that I could see. I did forget the two top risk factors, however, being a woman and being over 50.
So when my daughter said, “Mom, you always said that if you got cancer you wouldn’t do chemo, and now you are doing it. Why?”
My answer: “I never thought for a moment that I would get cancer. So I guess it was easy for me to make that proclamation.” I then added, that with my own research and advice from my medical team it was clear to me that my best chance of staying alive was chemo. This didn’t negate other non-medicaL things that I could do, but I also needed chemo. So, with new information, I changed my mind.
And indeed I could cope! And coping has nothing to do with ease or learning to like it.
There Can be Worse Things Than Cancer
It slips off the tongue too easily even if it’s true- you can cope. Unfortunately, sadly, there are things that will take a lot more time to learn how to cope with. I am not in favour of comparing suffering. We all suffer from the misfortunes of life in our own unique and common ways. For me, nonetheless, there are things that I can imagine to be worse than what I went through, without minimizing my own suffering. My heart goes out to EVERYONE suffering. The sudden death of a loved one; prolonged death of a loved one; serious accidents; mental illness; loss of sight, hearing, limbs, and a devastating diagnosis of any illness…so many things. Coping doesn’t mean getting over something. Rather, it can mean learning to live with something. We never get over the death of a child. We learn to co-exist with it as we continue to live our lives.
Part of coping and part of learning to live with requires others. I know I sound like a broken record but we cannot live in isolation. When we are impacted by the burdens of our lives, one of the ways we cope is getting help from each other: family; friends; professionals; strangers…and we need to let them know we need help. We also need to be discerning and pick and choose who we get help from. Not all help is helpful.
No one is exempt from suffering.
We are all in leaky boats going out to sea. Some of us have bigger boats and finer equipment. Yet, in a small group of friends, a wise and wealthy friend startled us with his reply to this question.
Q. “What would you buy if money were no object?”
A. If money could buy it, I would have it. The problem is that what I want most, money can’t buy.”
There was a sudden silence in the room and I think all of us received a wake-up call. No one is exempt from suffering.
And so, here we are. With things to be thankful for alongside all of our sorrows.
And I suppose Michelle Obama is speaking the truth of her own experience when she writes, “grief and resilience live together.”
1:) The banner photo was taken a few years ago on Gabriola Island on an “anything can happen to anyone” kind of day. Not photoshopped – just how it was. A magical moment. The title of this blog post can also mean good things can happen too, even though that’s not what I focused on.
2:) TED X The Three Secrets of Resilient People with Dr. Lucy Hone, Christchurch, New Zealand. This talk is important. It is from lived experience not just academic research. It is about 16 minutes and I recommend you all listen through to the end. Dr. Hone is the Director of The New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience.
3:) For any of you who are currently struggling please know that I bow to you in your pain and sorrow and my hope is that step by step you make your way through and alongside in whatever ways you can, to hold on to life.
4:) With boundless gratitude to all of you. You are simply the best readers of a blog, anyone could have. Warmest wishes, Trudy
PS If you haven’t read Oliver Burkeman’s latest book, Four Thousand Weeks, I would fix that as soon as possible. (and no, I don’t get a commission) haha Thought I better say that as I talk about it so much.