Empathy Allowed Me to Look Beyond My Cancer

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The day before I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I didn’t pay enough attention to my brother-in-law’s arduous journey with Parkinson’s disease.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Ron Cooper

I was busy with a full-time freelance career of ghostwriting memoirs and happily married to my sweetheart Tanya. Gary’s struggles with a relentless progressive disease were a sad fact of life, but I was emotionally distant from it.

It’s not that I didn’t care. I loved Gary, husband to my older sister Cindy and father to the sweetest nieces that any uncle could boast. I knew Cindy carried a huge burden caring for Gary, but she rarely mentioned it to me, accepting her responsibility with grace and quiet strength. The most I knew about Parkinson’s was through the lens of Michael J. Fox and his very public journey with this devastating disease.

But the day after I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, everything changed. I began to see, and in some way viscerally feel, the pain and suffering that Gary must be going through, much less what his immediate family felt as they supported him day in and day out.

As I went through prostate surgery, radiation and hormone therapy following my 2014 diagnosis, I looked at his serious illness from a completely different vantage point: Empathy.

I put myself in Gary’s shoes as far as humanly possible. Cancer had struck a deep emotional chord for not only me, but anyone else with a serious health issue, especially family.

Empathy: I took a keen interest in learning that Gary was in a boxing program for Parkinson’s patients in which they could stay active and build up their muscles. Fighting Parkinson’s took on a symbolic yet very real meaning for them and gave a chance to socialize while they were hitting their punching bags. The program is aptly named “Rock Steady Boxing.”

Empathy: I was happy to hear that Gary was going out on walks with Cindy, with their family dogs tagging along. Gary, a former sports editor, still loved watching his favorite teams on TV. I knew that his mind was still sharp as his body gradually began to weaken.

Empathy: I became quite worried and upset when nearly two years ago I learned that Gary was entering hospice and that the end was near. Fond memories rushed over me about Gary courting my sister, about his wicked sense of humor, even silly things like him beating me at ping-pong every time we played.

I have learned many lessons as I began to fully embrace empathy.

First, hearing the word “cancer” is truly mind-numbing, yet I still hold the capacity to care deeply for others, and that’s especially true when they’re going through a serious health crisis of their own.

Second, the world did not completely stop when I learned that I had cancer. Many other people hear bad news from their doctors every day of the year. They carry burdens much like I do. We are more alike than different.

Third, empathy makes me a more well-rounded person, and enriches me with love and compassion for others as I witness them on a path fighting a grievous illness. Our paths converge through empathy.

Gary is gone now, but precious memories remain, and, importantly, empathy is now fully part of my mindset, and has taken root in my heart.

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