Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Topic: The Other Side of Cancer

Originally posted to The Huffington Post.

Most of my blog posts begin with a list. A list of all the awful side effects I endured during eight months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I'd start by explaining how I was "bald, bloated, and bummed out" in the darkest depths of treatment, three years ago this month. I'd mention how isolated I felt; how few friends and family gave me the support I needed. I wouldn't leave out the depression and anxiety that followed in the year after treatment, making sure to highlight that for most, cancer is more than physical recovery. I would try my best to convey how bad it was.

But my life is strikingly different now. That list has no place in my current world. I am neither bald, nor bloated, nor bummed out. I'm thriving. My hair is luscious and longer than ever. My weight is steady, and I'm the strongest I've ever been. For the first time in my life, I am happy.

I am no longer sick. I am well.

That isn't the case for some of my closest friends and family. It's oddly coincidental that in the same year that I've recovered from my illness, a number of my friends and family are facing illnesses of their own. Their concerns range from cancer to mental health to physical trauma. But it doesn't matter what obstacle they're hurdling. I've discovered that all of our needs, regardless of ailment or treatment regimen, are the same. We want to know what they're going through is normal. We need to know that we're not alone.

Because I'm 'well,' and perhaps because I'm still desperate to make sense of my own senseless diagnosis, I assign myself responsibility to them. I know the impact a physical illness can have on your social functioning and ability to cope. I know how important the support of a good friend can be. So I make myself available to them. I am as visible or invisible as they need me to be. I visit when they need to talk, or keep my distance when they need some peace. I offer them the support that I missed during my own illness.

I can't deny the startling truth behind our experiences, that no amount of support or care can cure. I already know I'll never be safe from illness. But in my recovery I am beginning to see that nobody is safe from illness. We're either past or potential victims of the same threats. Years after my own treatment has finished, I am surrounded by what I now expect to be the circumstances of the rest of my life - illness and suffering.

There's a responsibility that comes with knowing this. I felt alone during treatment because I was ahead of the curve, being much younger than most when they're diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness. Nobody in my social circles had been there before me. With my experience now behind me, I am a rare resource to friends and family in similar circumstances. I get it. I know what they're going through. And we're in this together.

My list of adverse side effects is no longer a shock and awe tactic to help people who have no idea understand the full extent of my suffering. The number of people who understand how bad it was for me is, unfortunately, growing. So my list serves a more meaningful purpose. It normalizes where it once enlightened. It's a connection, rather than a source of disconnect.

I look forward to the day when my friends join me on the other side, when what seems to be a defining illness fades into a memory. A time when a trying, life-altering experience works its way out of a narrative, and becomes a passing moment in a long, complicated history. Just like I did, my friends will move on to their own version of normalcy. Maybe even happiness. If they take anything away from my story I hope it's this: illness, like good health, can be fleeting. There's another side waiting for them too.

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