Grief & Loss. Gratitude & Gain.
Editor's Note: This is part of Amber's series Surviving Cancer: A Personal Journey. Please see other posts in this series.
The first many steps on a road of tragedy are exceptionally hard, full of why-me’s and this-can’t-be’s, with a keen eye looking for the nearest escape route. As It Was is a place far more comfortable to remain and Denial, a far easier reality to justify, because the Unknown is a slog that is far more tenuous and vague. The thing is — tragedy can teach us some things. But not from the place of As It Was or Denial (even though that would be lovely). The richest life changers come from the Unknown, right smack-dab in the middle of it. Only we have to choose to accept that the Unknown is where we want to be because we want to be changed.
This is a story of a particular time that I learned something life-changing in one of cancer’s hardest Unknowns. It’s also about how that particular life changer applies to one of the most stigmatized parts of any tragedy. And in it all, I hope that it might change you, too.
To be sure, I certainly wanted nothing to do with a nonsense cancer diagnosis. I had far too many accomplishments to accumulate and far better things to do. “Get me off this path because I don’t have any time for it” was on repeat in my head. But, alas, a magical fork in the road offering me an alternate route in the opposite direction did not, in fact, appear. Instead, the path just kept twisting and turning, getting darker and more foreboding with each step, taking me farther and farther away from my As It Was.
In the throes of diagnosis and treatment, those days (and weeks and months) were scary. Having to take in shattering, life-altering information while also being forced to make shattering, life-altering decisions was difficult. Having to do so in the pitch black of the Unknown was dreadfully difficult. Everything was so reactive. Thinking straight was a luxury and pausing seemed irresponsible. The time continuum simultaneously halted to a stop and throttled me forward at breakneck speeds. Everything — past, present, and future — became distorted. Turns out, facing mortality obscures the future, confuses the present, and blurs the past; and when death becomes a companion, things get weird.
In the throes of diagnosis and treatment, those days (and weeks and months) were scary. Having to take in shattering, life-altering information while also being forced to make shattering, life-altering decisions was difficult. Having to do so in the pitch black of the Unknown was dreadfully difficult.
Truthfully, escape sure seems grand sometimes. And at times I haven’t been all that interested in the lessons to be gained. But I’m also learning there is value in letting the hard things change me. And so the story goes: There was this one night during chemo, Round 4 Day 20, when the fatigue was strong, and sleep was not far off. I remember looking up at my ceiling, tears streaming easily, feeling the lowest and darkest I’d ever felt, and I thought to myself: “This could be the last time I close my eyes.” I breathed in and it was the heaviest breath I’d ever taken, the weight of my life in that one breath. And then, just after that thought came to mind, another one followed: “If that is true, you’ve won. You’re out of pain. No more cancer.” I breathed in again and it was the deepest breath I’d ever taken, the magnitude of such surrender in that single breath. And yet another thought followed that one: “And if it isn’t the last time, and you get to open your eyes one more time, that means you’ll get to see the faces of those you love for one more moment.” I breathed in again and it was the fullest breath I’d ever taken, the relief of the ultimate win-win in that very breath.
It was in that moment that I understood something different because of cancer. Something that I knew as a counselor in my professional life but now understand as me in my very personal personal life. Something that is as life-altering, life-clarifying, and life-defining as cancer. The Both/And. I can acknowledge both my nearness to death and to life. That death doesn’t have to be dark; it can also be light. That life isn’t just light; that it can also be dark. That I will win in my last breath, and I will win with each one before it, no matter how hard it is.
No doubt the whole Both/And concept is a life changer, but I want to offer something even deeper in it. I want to challenge the stigma around grief.
Generally, grief is treated as an Either/Or. For example, I’ve heard over and over again: “Don’t let cancer get you down” and “You should just be glad you’re alive to fight it.” Or how about “At least…”
“…you’ll get a free boob job.”
“…it’s not stage 4.”
“…you aren’t alone.”
“…you already have kids.”
“…your hair is just hair and hair is not your life.”
“…you have the most common cancer.”
Either/Ors remove the space to grieve that which is lost. They do damage by making grief shameful. And those “At leasts” create a silo, isolating the griever while causing tension between cancer’s reality and its silver-lined rationalizations. Turns out, cancer is a downer. Should is a shame vacuum. And what about the patient who can’t get reconstruction or is stage 4 or isn’t young or is alone or hasn’t had kids yet and wants them but may never have them? What about the patient who now silences their real feelings because how dare they be so vain? What about the patient who feels invisible because no matter how common their cancer is, it is still wrecking them all the same? And what about the person who desperately wants and needs to grieve yet sits in shame and confusion because they are just supposed to be grateful to not be dead? (And don’t even get me started on how this damages those left behind when someone does die.)
How about we eliminate the Either/Ors and hold the Both/Ands instead? Grief isn’t shameful and it isn’t cause for panic. It isn’t taboo, it isn’t unnecessary, it isn’t weak, and it isn’t wrong or dangerous. Rather, to grieve is to be authentic. To grieve is to be honest. To grieve is to be grateful. And to grieve is to be human. Those things don’t cancel each other out, they aren’t prerequisites for one another, and we don’t have to choose one or the other and then be ashamed because we chose wrong. Instead, we get to choose both.
The grace in this Both/And is what filled my lungs on day 20 of round 4. And as long as I remain in this grace, I can honor my losses. I can also honor my gains. I can call out what I’m grateful for while calling out the hard realities. I can find balance among chaos. I can live free of shame because I live full in grace. I can trust my intuition because it’s not battling itself. I can learn to make it all matter because it all matters. And I don’t have to decide who wins — either myself or my grief.
Grief isn’t shameful and it isn’t cause for panic. It isn’t taboo, it isn’t unnecessary, it isn’t weak, and it isn’t wrong or dangerous. Rather, to grieve is to be authentic. To grieve is to be honest. To grieve is to be grateful. And to grieve is to be human.
So, #CancerTeachesMeThings. The grace of the Both/And offers space for authenticity, honoring all parts of the story. It makes room for the very real grief and the very real gratitude and the very real being human. And the most significant part of it all is that the grace of the Both/And frees hope from the confines of the Either/Or, making hope both tangible and accessible. And it is hope that makes it possible to keep showing up in every part of the story. Give the Both/And a try. It might just change everything.