The Paradoxical Gifts of Cancer

Nobody wants to learn they have cancer. But sometimes, the disease teaches people to appreciate other aspects of life, one cancer survivor explains.

Cancer is not something you want to find under your Christmas tree or open on the fifth night of Hanukkah, for sure. Birthdays? Definitely not. But if you find cancer there, now or during any season of the year, keep ripping the package open until you see a light hiding inside the darkness.

I understand what you might be thinking. Cancer, a gift? Cancer is not a gift we want to receive. It is the opposite of the perfect gift. Think of the worst gift you ever got and how it eventually made you laugh, though. Maybe cancer can be a little like that. Maybe it is the ugly sweater a grandmother knitted that we think we will never wear but find so functional in a winter storm.

Cancer is horrible, of course. It is not really a warm sweater. But if it is not a gift, it does proffer its own gifts. For example, while I could list all the changes to my body after surgery and treatment, from chronic pain to lymphedema, those paradoxical gifts have become just a fact of life, a cost of surviving.

Apart from its toll on the body, cancer has also given me the gift of lightening up about the body, which has had a ripple effect on unexpected elements of life.

I was thinking about one of cancer’s gifts today as I got out some tarnished earrings. Polishing the silver and looking at the sparkling cubic zirconia stones, I reminded myself of when I bought these earrings just as I began chemo. Flashy and faux, they were completely out of character for me. Still, I loved them despite how cheap they were in more ways than one. The day I bought them, I let myself lighten up and entertain my inner little girl who could enjoy wearing sparkly earrings to chemo. Why not?

Another gift of cancer has been the ability to stop crying over spilt milk, so to speak. It was always easy for me to get frustrated or upset over minor things involving the material world.

After cancer, I would watch a kitten break a treasured scarab paperweight I brought home from Egypt. I would drop one of four precious porcelain cups I had carried with me from house to house for more than 30 years. Things like that no longer upset me. I just clean up the debris and move on.

The most practical gift cancer has given me is the ability to accept the modern miracle of medicine. I had always said I would never undergo treatment if I got cancer, having seen how sick one of my brothers was with it during his last year. Chemotherapy was both good for him, giving him some months on earth, and brutal. Chemo became one of those monstrous paradoxes I never wanted to ponder. Never say never.

Once I had cancer, I let myself accept what the medical world had to offer, all the bells and whistles available decades after my brother suffered. I gave myself the gift of accepting the gift of modern medicine despite my ambivalence. And as for the earrings I bought to wear to chemo? Their sparkle pales next to this gift.

The biggest gift of cancer, though, involves something harder to describe. Perhaps the simplest way to say it is that cancer made me kinder. Maybe I was kind before. But I think I am kinder now. I will not give examples to avoid sounding sanctimonious. Just leave it at that. Cancer gave me the gift of kindness. That is a gift I hope I will keep on opening.

As you open presents this holiday season, thankful to the gift-givers even for gifts that do not resonate so much with you, think about how opening the box of cancer revealed sides of yourself you were surprised to see. What has cancer paradoxically given you to make you lighten up?

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