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Finding Cancer Survival Lessons in Unexpected Places

Blog
Article

Lessons happen when you least expect it.

Khevin Barnes

It seems absurd to suggest that something as momentous as breast cancer could be upstaged by a simple observation in my kitchen. And yet, one thing I’ve learned about living with a life-threatening disease like male breast cancer for nine years is that there are still surprises and revelations to be found in the most unlikely of places; and many of them can be deceptively obscure yet insightful at the same time.

While washing up the dinner dishes awhile back and scrubbing the burned rice from a small soup pot, I was about to return the pot to its place in the cupboard when my wife walked into the kitchen. She glanced at the pot and then at me, smiling, as if to say “nice job, buddy”. But then, as I turned to put the pot away, she gave me that “look” of hers and asked “Did you wash the bottom?”

“Of course” I replied, pointed to the freshly scrubbed interior of the pot while feeling a bit smug about the excellent job I had done. Then she gave me that look again.

“Wait a minute”, I thought to myself.“ Can there be two bottoms to something?” I began to think about how we as survivors create our personal perspective of cancer. And how those things that we either notice or miss can play a significant role in our ongoing recovery. The difficult moments can sometime eclipse our belief in the possibility of better days.

For me though, just hitting the pause button in my life with cancer is helpful. And in that pause, I very often find another way to confront the fears and concerns that my disease can manifest.

I’m not trying to push away disturbing thoughts. It’s really about honoring them, and seeing that a lot of our fears are based on the unknowable, and sometimes, the unchangeable. It’s about seeing our lives in new ways and from different angles.

So looking at something like a burned pot we might ask “Can there be two bottoms?” Indeed.

My wife turned the pot over to show a blackened copper surface on the reverse side—the real bottom and with several swift swipes of a sponge and powdered cleanser, revealed a glistening, gilded surface; just as shiny as a new penny.

“But nobody ever looks at the bottom!” I argued.

And there it was. A profound little lesson from the most unlikely of sources. I realized that there was another, less visible side to my breast cancer experience, and like my soup pot, it was in my hands the whole time. I had forgotten to look at that perfect breast that still graced my graying chest. I had forgotten that the nagging discomfort of my mastectomy scar wasn’t always an indication that my cancer had returned. And I remembered that on the other side of my fear of dying too soon, there were good reasons to be hopeful, and that my life could be long and fulfilling. Fear, it seems to me, is based on so much that we don’t know—and don’t see.

And while I don’t think that there is anything “wrong” with anybody feeling lost, alone or frightened when breast cancer enters their lives, it was through opening my eyes to the other side of cancer—the side where healing resides—the bottom of the pot, where I found the inspiration to look at the bigger possibilities to be healed.

My breast cancer has a way of pushing me to see new opportunities and new details in my life. These can be as urgent as sensing a new pain or sensation in my chest; identifying it, and realizing I will live another day, or as comforting as noticing that the cactus outside my Arizona window has delivered another sweet bloom.

Like the underside of my soup pot, male breast cancer is often hidden from view. But for me, it offers a challenging and transformative “flip side” to my life as I continue in my quest for health and healing.

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