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Facing Death and Finding Life

Published:
December 14, 2023
April 17, 2023
Read to learn how acts of kindness can help you in facing death.

When you tell someone you had cancer, the air in the room changes. Everything they thought they knew about you suddenly snaps into focus through a different lens.

This makes it difficult for the person who battled and beat cancer to know when to work such a stunning anecdote into the conversation. For me, I find it works best to start with what I do for a living, how many kids I have, and what my favorite movies are before dropping the C-word. If I’m at a dinner party, I don’t mention it until dessert. Stunning medical news from your past pairs best with a red wine.

Joking aside, cancer is obviously a vital part of any survivor’s identity and personal story. If you willingly inject poisonous chemotherapy drugs into your system in order to destroy your own mutated cells that are now trying to kill you, you can’t be the same person after that unique and grueling experience. You have faced down death and come back victorious. Life is different on the other side.

As a young adult cancer survivor with that story to tell, things can get weird. For those who weren’t yet in my life when I was battling the disease, hearing the news can lead to a variety of reactions. I’ve seen people’s faces change when I tell them I beat cancer. Their eyes widen and they size me up in a new way. It’s hard to tell if they are perceiving in me a new strength, a new weakness, or perhaps a mix of both. I know this, because I remember feeling it about cancer survivors myself before I shared their title.

And so I sometimes find myself minimizing this essential experience so they can return to their previous view of me. “Oh, don’t worry, it was several years ago and I’m all good now,” or “I had the good kind of cancer, so I’m cured.”

I don’t want to be seen as either a hero or an invalid for walking a difficult health path that was thrust upon me. It’s not heroic to accept a chemotherapy regimen that will save your life — it’s common sense. And now that I’m restored to full health, I’m not always comfortable when people put me on a mental medical watch list, as if the mere mention of cancer could cause a recurrence or that they need to ask me, “How’s your…you know…health?” if it’s been a while since they’ve seen me. I know this concern comes from a place of love, but it also turns cancer into a shadow that I’m constantly trying to outrun, rather than a disease that I have overcome and from which my life has moved on.

I was blessed to be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. That’s a weird sentence to write, but I consider myself blessed for two reasons: 1) Hodgkin’s is a remarkably curable cancer. While it’s no walk in the park to get there, it usually remains in remission after a prescribed amount of chemo and you are considered medically “cured” of cancer, and 2) The experience of fighting cancer provided a clarity about the preciousness of life and the hidden battles that so many people are fighting that I will never forget and could not have acquired without going through cancer treatment. While I can’t say that I now live every day to the fullest and always have these life lessons top of mind, I at least have a permanent and personal guidepost to which I can return for that clarity — and the visceral memory of those experiences that shock me back into wanting to live my best life and help ease the struggles of my fellow earthly passengers.

And that is ultimately what I wish I could instantly communicate to people who find out about my lymphoma fight. The fact that I had honest-to-goodness cancer should not scare you or radically change your perception of me. It should help you to realize that the seemingly healthy and normal people all around you are currently fighting or previously fought their own battles with a personal “cancer” of some sort. And we are in the position to help “cure” each other.

The best medicine I received to fight cancer came outside the walls of the infusion room. The regimen of greeting cards, text messages, Facebook posts, meal trains, cancer memes, prayer intentions, and other reminders of support from family and friends were the perfect prescription for the mental battle of beating cancer. These acts of kindness usually cost very little in terms of time, but they lined my road to recovery in an integral way.

As I continue to grapple with post-remission questions like, “Why did I survive while others die?”, the memory of these kindnesses comes flooding back, and I realize that I can spend the rest of my life — these years that simply would not have existed for me if I didn’t happen to live in a time and place in which Hodgkin’s can be cured — paying this forward to others and encouraging people to join me.

So will you join me? It’s pretty easy.

Send a text to that friend you haven’t heard from in a while. He might just be busy, or he might need an encouraging word right now. When a person mentions a difficulty that she is dealing with in her life, tell her you are going to pray specifically for her and that intention. Do you know someone who is struggling financially or taking care of someone else who is in ill health? Make them a meal or send them a gift card to their favorite restaurant.

The acts are small, but the effects are potentially massive — and not just for the recipient of your kindness. Viewing life through a prism of others’ struggles will automatically lead you to cherish the preciousness of your own life and the oft-taken for granted blessings therein.

It took the trauma of cancer and the specter of death to wake me up to this notion that a bunch of people engaged in small gestures of kindness can change someone’s entire experience and help them pull through whatever they are dealing with. Not all cancer can be treated and not all difficulties have a solution, but we can make life a little easier and brighter for those around us. And it starts with a simple act of kindness. 

Creators:
Matt Paolelli
Published:
December 14, 2023
April 17, 2023
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