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An Unexpected Lesson from Cancer

Article

The best of humanity met me at the worst time of my life when I found “my people” after receiving a stage 4 colorectal cancer diagnosis.

When I was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer, it was scary and lonely. I was young, healthy, in the prime of my life. I had four active sons. Nobody my age in my small community understood the diagnosis I was facing Colorectal cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to people like me, and adding to the pain was the impossibility of people I knew understanding what I was experiencing.

Friends and acquaintances offered support, but no one I could turn to truly got it. And that was OK — I didn’t want them to feel the burdens of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Life as I knew it had stopped and my world changed forever. It shifted into something I could not relate to. I was very much alive, feeling good physically, but my impending death was all I could focus on and didn’t know how to take the next step forward. I was lost and barely hanging on alone in unimaginable grief. I was ready to give up. Retreating, defeated and resigned to this as the end of my life story, I spent endless hours on the computer reading about end of life and stage 4 outcomes.

It was during that search that the unexpected happened. Cancer gave me a gift, you might say a lesson, that I never imagined was possible.

As I was searching online, I bumped into a group of survivors in a place called The Colon Club and the organization Fight Colorectal Cancer. These survivors were very much alive and living life well. They were young just like me, and they had discovered how to celebrate life in the middle. They, like me, were trying to adjust to new lives juggling children, careers, cancer treatments, and forging their paths forward. For the first time since diagnosis, I felt a glimmer of hope.

I decided to take a chance and we all met up at an airport. 12 strangers! We didn’t know anything about one another in the real world, but circumstances allowed us to develop a quick cancer kinship. We met, laughed together and cried together. Finally, there were people who understood my pain.

These people also knew my determination to search for answers and treatment options. They felt the raw grit and gumption it takes to find answers along with simultaneously managing life and treating cancer. They also intrinsically understood the joy life still offered somewhere deep in the complexity of a cancer diagnosis. We could talk about our lives in a way no one else could understand. We all knew at the same level that nothing is more powerful than providing support and love to one another in seemingly hopeless situations. As patients and survivors, we know and understand heartbreak and loss at a different level. We face our own mortality unlike anyone else, and we can express the deepest forms of empathy and understanding. These people offered me a safe haven where all those things existed, and we could all dare to HOPE.

I was lucky: the best of humanity met me at the worst time in my life, right when I needed them most. We hung on to each other and have become a family. We really listen and understand, sharing our deepest fears and feelings of need. We talk about the immediacy of life experiences and our future plans for living with this unique perspective. Quite simply, we are all learning a new way of life together. There’s no better way to do cancer (and life, for that matter) than together with your people.

At first, I called them my cancer friends. Later I realized, through the darkness cancer caused, I had finally met the people I would forever call my family, with many of whom I have since established lifelong friendships. These friends have enriched and positively influenced my life, significantly impacting the trajectory of my journey through life and cancer. Ever since that day in that airport, I have never felt alone. I found, in the midst of this complex, life altering diagnosis, hope existed in the form of humanity. Unimaginable circumstances can bring together the best that our universe has to offer in a perfect symphony. We were forced together in unimaginably painful circumstances as cancer patients, and we grew together to develop real life friendships that will eclipse any sort of cancer diagnosis.

These people are my people, my tribe. I am ever confident that I can endure cancer because even in the dark, when it feels all-consuming, there are unexpected lessons it can still provide that enrich my existence and continue to give me HOPE.

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