Cancer and Its Gift of Emotional Resilience


Surviving cancer teaches us emotional resilience, making even a frightening pandemic something we can decide we can navigate.

Surviving cancer teaches you emotional resilience. Once you have received and navigated a scary diagnosis from tests to treatment, and recovery from treatment, your ability to handle ordinary challenges goes up several notches.

It is thus with great surprise that I found myself thrown for a loop by anxiety over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). I say this as somebody who has survived many things, from some mysterious childhood malady that was likely viral meningitis to cancer. I say this as the little girl who, when she briefly lost the ability to walk, illustrated her new way of getting around by scooting on the floor on her bottom, strong arms her oars.

With every new detail about COVID-19, though, I shrank into a smaller person who worried too much and took too much delight in strangely small blessings. The potentially last dispenser of hand sanitizer in the huge store on a top shelf? I took it, even though the sign said to get help with items on the top shelf. My height was my permission. Cat food? I bought it. Three bags. Sanitizing wipes? I did not overbuy but did buy an extra canister to share.

While I might begin a new day feeling serene, I would end up completely frazzled by 7 PM. This is because I checked the news incessantly. I worried about my son. I worried about my ex-husband. I worried about my friends. I worried about total strangers I bonded with in front of the last remaining sanitizing wipes in a grocery store when I stopped to help somebody reach them on a shelf. (I did not take them. I already had mine, of course!)

I worried and worried. Then, one afternoon, I opened my email to find a small square of a black-and-white photograph scanned and sent to me by a cousin who has been going through her photographs. I was mesmerized by this picture because I had never seen it before, not in print and not in my mind's eye.

The photograph is of four children standing together in a field. Two of the children are small, and the two older children are tending them. My cousin is touching me as I toddle. I could stand up then but, as a late walker, was not quite walking with ease. My other cousin has his hand on my older brother's shoulder. I am about 14 months old. My brother is a few months past two. We are not posing for the camera.

Seeing the four of us jolted me into finding a new perspective on my new fear. Of the four, my brother has passed on, from a virulent cancer at 21. Of the four, I would grow up to have invasive cancer and survive it. The cousins? Both are not all that far removed from days with polio, the days of iron lungs and parents' nightmares. My cousins, who are about 10 and 8, look so happy to be tending their little cousins in the spring afternoon.

My cousin who is tending me is still my role model. Seeing the photo, I began to realize why she drove many miles to visit with me when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had not remembered that we had known each other as small children. I realized why she drove down again when I buried my mother after she died of complications from dementia and cancer. Family ties help us through many ordeals, from cancer to polio. They will help us through this one too, this COVID-19.

The little girl in the photograph who was me is still a part of me, as ready to start walking as she is to take on the world and whatever life brings, including childhood illness, cancer and a frightening pandemic. Heartened by family ties and family history of resilience, I will not let anxiety get the best of me.

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