When I first received this diagnosis, I also received a gift. (No, I will not offend anyone who is suffering directly or indirectly from cancer—or any other misfortune—to suggest that cancer itself is the gift. Cancer is just shitty luck, which any of us can get no matter what good or bad choices we’ve made in our lives. And I would so gladly give it back if I could!) The gift I received, virtually at the same moment as the diagnosis, was acceptance. (I’m calling it a gift because it was just suddenly there for me.) This gift has proved incredibly valuable. It has meant I have been freed from a range of difficult emotions and reactions one might expect with a terminal diagnosis. Most wonderfully, it has meant no anger, denial, desperation, or despair. I have also been most blessedly free of depression, fear, anxiety, and bitterness. This is why it is a gift. Instead of all that hard stuff, I’ve been left with plenty of space for gratitude, love, joy, wonder, peace, connection. This has meant I could continue to be mostly cheerful, still be delighted to greet each new day and cherish time with my loved ones.
I did, however, question the gift of acceptance for a few weeks while I was struggling to decide whether to pursue conventional medical treatment (chemo and radiation), alternative treatment, or simply do nothing and let the disease take its course. Though acceptance had felt so clear and solid in my heart, I questioned it as I was flooded with links to various treatments, promises of miracle cures, advice about attitudes, and stories of survival. (I know all that advice came from true caring, so I do appreciate it for that.) Though I did ask a few specific people for their perspective, I was soon overwhelmed, especially as much of the advice was directly opposed with other advice, and there were very few verifiable facts anywhere. There were only a few things I was sure of. I knew I didn’t want to waste my time and energy battling an unbeatable cancer. I also didn’t want to die. But I wasn’t afraid of death either. Nor did I want to give up if there was hope. But now I wondered whether it were true that if I were determined enough I could beat this, as many claim. I know medical knowledge is faulty at best and woefully thin for this particular disease, and statistics are deceptive. But what facts there are indicate that any hope to be cured or survive very long with this diagnosis really aren’t reasonable. And I have known several people who were determined to live but who did die nonetheless. The fact is, not one of us is ultimately going to beat death. Though many find it empowering to believe they have full agency over their health, I don’t believe we are responsible for all our diseases, or even for our baseline health. Sometimes things just go wrong and there’s nothing we can do about it. (More on that in another post soon.)
All this to say, I have reclaimed that gift of acceptance. Living in a way that is true to me means accepting and fully embracing this experience so that I can do my best to transform it into something positive. That is where my energy is focused. Not on hoping and trying to survive, but on turning this into something that brings more goodness and joy and love and peace into the world, rather than being just an experience of loss. I have received so many gifts of all kinds in my life – especially gifts of joy, love, and kindness – and what I most want now is to leave as many of those gifts with all of you as I can. That is what will bring me peace in death.
Recognizing and accepting such gifts is not always easy, especially for those without a formal religion or spiritual framework with which to construct meaning in an often senseless world. But I think the gifts are there. They’re not always the gifts we might have asked for, but being open to receiving them can help us through the parts of life that seem to be anything but a gift.