From painful physical after effects of our treatments and various struggles with our bodies, to the emotional ups and downs during the long periods of surveillance after our cancer fights, most cancer survivors are no strangers to all sorts of pain. There's a type of pain that's not often talked about however, and that's the pain we experience when the nature of our relationships with people in our lives change, as either a direct or indirect result of our cancer experience. This is the story of my deep interpersonal and spiritual struggles after cancer, of trying to make sense of the world again, of trying to get to the bottom of who I really was and what I needed in this world, and all of the bumps and roadblocks along the way.
My friend Karen Sewell, whose husband Sean Martella died of testicular cancer the year before my own diagnosis, wrote of how lonely and isolating cancer and illness can be. As soon as you announce that you have cancer, some friends might simply disappear from your life, never to be heard from again. Most mean well, but some might have a tendency to say and do the wrong things. Others shy away simply because they know how delicate the situation is and don’t want to do any harm, except that not saying a word about cancer to someone fighting it can be dismissive and hurtful by itself. Those that are fortunate enough to have never faced a major trial in life, most likely won't be able to relate at all. Everything about life is still a sure thing to them. Cancer, especially as a young adult, can be such an awkward and isolating experience.
My wife and I had already been feeling somewhat isolated even before cancer. I had envisioned this stage of our lives as being filled with our brothers and sisters, big fun family get-togethers on holidays, our children getting to play with their cousins, and my wife and I getting to play aunt and uncle to various nieces and nephews that we'd undoubtedly have. Instead we felt nothing but a vacuum here. What a strange life experience it's been for both of us to have siblings that have had absolutely no interest in being a part of our lives at all, to the point that it’s like we're both only children. We're the only ones that are married, the only ones to have children, and we took on the challenge of starting a family without any of the peer level support that one commonly gets from brothers and sisters. Then cancer entered our lives, and we had to face that without that peer level support as well. Brothers and sisters are such a huge source of support for many facing cancers and other life-threatening illnesses, and to be without that really hurt. My wife and I have both felt feelings of abandonment towards our families, and I couldn’t bear to feel alone like this anymore after cancer.
I’ve been blessed with some wonderful friends, but too many of them were spread too far away. Even those that have been close by just tended to be on different life rhythms than us, which made it hard to connect. A few years prior to cancer entering our lives, I had encouraged my wife to join some women's professional groups to find people she could relate to better in the absence of brothers and sisters, and now I needed to do the same. I needed people closer to me, and began seeking new or closer friends that could become like brothers and sisters, but which people? Who could possibly understand what I was going through, and who could know me like a brother or sister could? It was a herding instinct coming to the surface. I had terrible feelings of insecurity after cancer, and felt so vulnerable. I needed my ‘herd’ to surround and protect me, people that could help look after my family if I wasn’t going to make it, but felt like I didn’t really have one, which made the feelings of insecurity even worse. I had mentally reserved those inner-circle slots for people that just weren't ever going to exist in our lives. How do you suddenly develop family-like friendships at this stage of life in such a bizarre situation? It felt like it would be impossible, but it was what I realized I needed. I learned some very important lessons along the way.
1. Good Friends are Hard to Find
Someone I had met the year after my cancer fight seemed to be the perfect person for me to know. There was a click and a connection that you don't commonly feel towards most people, there were so many common interests, and we were at similar stages in our lives. I felt like I already knew this person in a way, not unlike a brother or sister, or perhaps from a previous life. A wonderful friendship soon developed, or at least I thought one had, and there were some pretty fun times. I genuinely enjoyed this person and their presence in my life, and the camaraderie that we shared. I thought for sure this was a person that could fill one of these voids, only for them betray my friendship and my trust in such a terrible way that they were told not to ever speak to me again. I was so hurt, confused, and disappointed.
I was in the midst of a very dark time. A friend of mine had just died of his cancer, and other friends had relapsed and were back in the fight for their lives again. I had a lot of strange things going on with my body, and had all but convinced myself that my own cancer had returned. I was so distressed about life that I had cried myself to sleep on numerous nights, fearing that I was next, and that I was going to die. I needed every single friend, and source of love and support that I had, only to be feeling the loss of one in such a terrible way instead. I'd had a friend or two betray my trust like this long in the past, but of all the times for something like this to happen again. It was just plain rotten. And it wasn't merely a single friend that was lost either, but effectively an entire circle of friends that I no longer felt comfortable leaning on for any sort of support, and that I felt the need to distance myself from. I genuinely feared for my life and couldn't afford to be hurt anymore, and started pulling the plug on everything and everybody in my life except those I trusted the most. I was so afraid, and felt so alone. Cancer can indeed be so lonely and isolating at times.
2. Expect the Unexpected
When friends fail you, it's natural and even instinctual to turn to your own blood and family for support, but here I found surprises as well. My parents love for me knows no limits. They're both wonderful and dedicated people who have been a constant source of support for my wife and I through these difficult times. There's nothing that they wouldn't do for us, but that was also part of the problem. When things were really bad, the more they tried to help me, the more they just ended up hurting me in the end. I had to send my own parents away for a time too, and then I was completely heartbroken.
The only thing my parents have ever been guilty of is loving me a little too much, and trying a bit too hard, when they just didn't have the right God-given tools for the job to connect with me in the way that I needed. I love my parents with all of my heart, even if it’s difficult for me to show. It's such a cruel trick of nature that even your own family might not know how to connect with you on that soulful level needed in order to support you. It wasn’t just new brothers and sisters that I needed to find, but a second set of parents as well. I needed help from those that just knew what I was going through, and that had the tools needed to nurture me and guide me through such distressing times after cancer as these, either through experience or God-given ability.
3. We All Carry Pain
“If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else's,
we'd grab ours back.” - Regina Brett
What I've learned the most from these failed friendships and relationships in my personal life, is that there's no shortage of people who carry pain around with them. From others carrying the burden of their own cancers or other diseases and disorders, either as fighters or caregivers, to those who have lost loved ones, things are just getting started. There are those suffering from failed or loveless marriages, divorces, abuse, and other relationship woes. There’s abandonment, job and career woes, poverty, addictions, victims of crime and rape, family and parenting woes, and the list just goes on and on. Loss of fertility is common with young adult cancer survivors, and for many, there’s the pain of knowing you might not ever be able to have a family of your own.
If someone doesn't carry any pain with them or they're not struggling with anything in life, it just means that they're fortunate enough to have not faced a major trial in life yet. Or perhaps they are, but you just don't know about it, or they're better at hiding things than most. You never know what lurks within. Life will test all of us sooner or later, and periods of struggle or suffering in life are inevitable. You’re never alone in your pain.
4. "Be Kind, Everyone is Fighting a Battle You Know Nothing About"
I pretend to know and understand nothing of the pain that others carry with them. The only shoes that I walk in are my own, but I know what it's like to have a battle waging inside of you that no one knows a thing about, and I know what it feels like to be on the losing end of that battle. Cancer never really leaves us. It can continue to haunt us and affect us even long after it's gone, and filled me with so many doubts. Cancer isn’t just a disease of the body - it can be a disease of our minds as well.
“My body is battered so badly from cancer once and I’m only in my 30’s. What if I have to face cancer again? Will my body even be able to handle it? Will I have any quality of life left at all? Will I ever live a life without pain? Will I ever live a day where I’m not struggling so badly with fatigue again? My cancer is just going to come back. I’m just going to die anyways. Why plan for a future if I’m not even going to have one? My children will grow up without me. I will not live to see the day my daughter gets married, and won’t get to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. I will never get to hold a grandchild. I’m going to window my wife, and she’ll never find happiness in this life again without me. She’ll suffer, and my children will suffer, and there’s nothing I can do about it. My cancer is going to come back, I’m going to be one of the ones, it won’t be curable, and I’m just going to die. Enjoy this moment now. It will be the last time.”
These are the thoughts that had plagued my inner dialog for awhile. They had flooded me, and pushed me to the brink. I couldn't enjoy the simplest of sweet moments with my family without such dark thoughts coming into my head. They were demons that had invaded my mind, savaging me at every opportunity. These thoughts took hold, I had no control anymore, and didn't know how to make them stop. I couldn’t bear to be hurt like this anymore, and for one very brief moment that I'll never forget, I contemplated suicide. That would make them stop.
“Cancer as a disease of my mind came far closer to killing me
than it ever did as a disease of my body.”
God bless my wife, my soulmate in this world, for sticking by my side. Even she was at her wits' end, but she never gave up on me, and she got inside of my mind in a way that only a soulmate could do. With the power of her love, she got my demons on the run when I lacked the ability to fight them anymore, pledging to never stop loving me, and that she would go to ends of the earth for me if that's what it took. Her love cured me.
No one else has known about this until now, because I've never spoken about it to anyone. I don't think my wife even knows, because I didn’t want her to worry anymore than she already was, and because that moment of contemplation came and went quickly and didn’t linger. I knew it wasn’t the answer, and that it would be a terribly selfish thing to do. I knew just how much my family needed me back, and my wife was able to get me there. She saved my life not just from cancer as a physical disease, but from cancer the mental disease as well. I’m forever indebted and in love. It’s never been more clear to me how our purposes in life are linked to one another. I’m so blessed.
I've learned to never truly judge anyone, because you never know what sort of pain they're dealing with on the inside, what their paths through life have been like and the challenges they’ve faced, nor what their own internal dialogs have been telling them. Not a soul in this world has known just how dark my own internal dialog became. Someone may have been terribly hurtful towards you at the end of one chapter, but you have no idea what was going on in their lives for all of the previous chapters. Be kind to others always, and leave the judging to God. Protect and isolate yourself from those that are behaving in hurtful or potentially destructive ways. Remove them from your lives if you must, but know that they probably need love and someone to believe in them more than anything, and not your condemnation.
5. All You Can Do Is Your Best
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
All you can ever do is your best, even if the best you can do on a given day is to just survive and be present. I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, because I know in my heart that I've always done my best every single day, no matter how badly I'd been hurting. I know that I haven't always been the best father, the best husband, the best son, or the best friend when my mind has been trapped in the darkest of places. I know there are people that I've disappointed and hurt, and for all of that, I'm sorry. My intentions have always been pure and honorable. There’s no one that I’ve ever wanted to hurt, despite it just having become impossible to avoid in some cases. Life occasionally presents us with impossible situations, and sometimes there’s just no way to win. I’ve accepted my failures and shortcomings as part of me, I know in my heart that I did the best that I could do, and that's all we can ever do.
6. We’re All The Same Inside
We're all unique and beautiful in our own ways, but it doesn’t matter if we’re younger or older, richer or poorer, black or white, or left or right. One of the most comforting and unifying things I’ve come to realize as a young adult cancer survivor from interacting with hundreds of fellow young adult survivors all over the globe, is that we’re all the same inside. We all want someone to love, and to be loved in return. We take great pride in our children and their accomplishments and love watching them grow. We have our unique dreams and ambitions, and yearn to make the world a bit better place than when we arrived. When faced with something such as cancer, we feel our lives turned upside down. We’re all so afraid, and feel betrayed by our bodies when everything suddenly becomes so uncertain. We want so desperately to know that we’ll have a future, and that we’ll be able to go on living, loving, and being present in life with all those we love and care about, and still trying to make our dreams a reality. It hurts so much to lose that perceived certainty in life.
All of this transcends race, religion, class, and caste. I’ve never felt more at peace than the times I’ve shared such terrifying thoughts with other cancer survivors, whether across town or across the globe. Here I was thinking I was all alone and that nobody else could possibly understand, only to realize that everyone did, and that they had felt the same exact things too. You’re never alone. We’re all so unique and diverse, yet so much the same, and all in this world and this life together.
7. Love and Forgive
“When each of us is able to look into the eyes of even our worst enemies and see our own eyes looking back, then we’ll see true transformation of the human race.” - Anita Moorjani
When I think of the people that have hurt me today, I no longer see people who were trying to hurt me. I see myself. I see people who have been hurting inside that have been lost, troubled, and confused. I see people that have perhaps been on the losing end of inner battles they’ve been facing in their own lives. I see people who were just trying to find what they needed in life, but sometimes making mistakes, and occasionally terrible ones. We act out towards others when we can no longer bear the pain that we’ve been experiencing, just as I’ve acted out when I could no longer bear my own. And perhaps, sometimes, we cause each other pain without even knowing it.
With all that I’ve learned and have come to realize, and all the soul-searching that I’ve done through this journey of mine, how can I go on hating people for hurting me, when I know they’re really the same as me inside? It’s like I’m hating myself, and maybe that’s what I’ve really been doing.
I want the people who have hurt me to know that they’ve been forgiven.
Life is far too short to want to waste even a minute of your life hating someone if you could just forgive and love them instead. It’s a conscious choice that we have on how we’re going to feel about people. My choice now is to love. Those that have hurt and disappointed me are beautiful beings of the universe just like me, but facing different challenges in life, and hurting in different ways. They have my empathy, my understanding, and my love and forgiveness.
8. “Sometimes all you need is a Second Chance, because time wasn’t ready for the first one.”
Everyone deserves a second chance, even yourself. A few months ago, I ran into someone that I had previously considered a friend. As soon as they caught sight of me, they turned themselves around and went straight back where they came from. They thought I hadn’t seen them. What happened between this person and I was very sad and unfortunate, and I was sorry to still see such a reaction after so long. I’ve long since healed and moved on from the damage this person had caused, and such experiences today only serve as reminders of a painful past, when I’d rather just remember the love and the good times.
I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to get to the point of being able to offer others forgiveness and second chances, but that’s just how long it’s taken me to heal from my own pain, and to win my own inner battles. And then some people just haven’t done themselves any favors, either. You can’t forgive the mistakes of others until you can forgive yourself for your own. You can’t offer others second chances until you're willing to grant yourself one. And you can’t truly love others, despite the pain they may have caused you, until you can truly love yourself.
It’s long past the time to bury the hatchet with some, and I’m no longer going to barricade people from our lives as I have. It just seems so pointless now, knowing that we’re all the same inside. Forgiveness and second chances don’t suddenly right past wrongs, nor do they mean I don’t still feel disappointment towards some. It means that time can help heal wounds too, that the pain has slowly been forgotten, and that the good times and laughter are still remembered. The time is ripe for old friendships and relationships to resume. So long as hearts are all in the right places, doors can be reopened with a smile, even if it's only to say a more proper goodbye, or to leave things better than they’ve been. I’ve made peace with the past and know that I’ve always done my best, and am looking forward to a brighter future.
9. Love Yourself Unconditionally, and Be 100% Genuinely You
"My cancer taught me the importance of loving and valuing myself unconditionally for who I am - a perfect child of the Universe, who is worthy and deserving of love, without needing to prove myself, better myself, or change myself in any way."
"If you believe that 'like attracts like', then the absolute best way to attract what's best for you is to love yourself to the point where you are filled with love. You will then attract to your life everything that confirms this belief about yourself." - Anita Moorjani
Perhaps one of the reasons that I struggled to fill the various voids in my life that cancer had revealed is because I hadn’t been fully genuinely “me” with anyone besides my wife yet, and even long before cancer. Like attracts like, so stop being afraid to be yourself. If all you allow yourself to be is "not quite you", then the best you'll ever find will be "not quite for you."
Cancer survivorship is the time to strip away all of the societal expectations and social conditioning that have never really fit you, and to allow the true you to shine through. Don’t let anything hold you back, don't make any excuses, and don’t be afraid to break the mold. Be genuine, be true to yourself, and be the person that you were always meant to be. Do the things that you enjoy doing, and who and what you need will find you without any effort. If you haven't found people to fill your life that can love and appreciate you for all that you are, exactly as you are, you haven't found the right people yet. Keep looking! You deserve nothing less than the love of full acceptance.
10. Don't Be Afraid to Keep Opening New Doors
It's all too easy to want to shut out the world when you've been so hurt and have felt so alone. Withdrawing to only those that you feel most secure around is natural, but don't allow yourself to become completely isolated, and don't be afraid to keep opening new doors when you’re still feeling voids. Keep the faith, and don't be afraid to take a leap of one either! Had I not had the courage to keep opening new doors after having been so hurt, I'd have missed out on the most wonderful of friendships that came soon after these tough times. The only way to find what you need is to keep opening new doors!
God winks. It’s almost as though I was being watched over from the heavens during my most distressed times, it was seen how hurt I had been despite the best of intentions, and was rewarded with the blessings of exactly the right people that I needed at exactly the right time. My heart has melted time and time again from those that came into my life after such dark times, and all of the ways in which they've been able to enrich my life, and help me find that sense of peace and security that I’ve needed. Don’t be afraid to keep letting new people in. Eventually you’ll find what you need, and the friendships gained will be so much sweeter when you do.
I’ve wondered for so long why fears about cancer would keep finding ways to come back and haunt me, only to realize it wasn’t cancer. It was me! I never really forgave myself for anything. Not for the hell I had put my wife and my family through, the times I had let others down as I struggled, nor did I ever truly forgive those who had disappointed me. My ongoing fears about cancer weren’t really about cancer, but rather of being disappointed, or disappointing others!
It’s tough to have had cancer and be a Scorpio. We might appear calm and easygoing on the outside, but have such powerful thoughts and emotions on the inside. We're intense individuals, have such high standards for ourselves, and expect perfection from everyone around us. We’re so unforgiving when things go wrong, even towards ourselves, yet dealing with cancer and cancer survivorship, with all of its churn and turmoil, is the time when it’s just inevitable that things are going to go to hell in a hand basket. I've really needed to forgive myself, but had only paid a deeper forgiveness on this level lip service before. That doesn't cut it. You have to go all-in, to unconditionally love and accept yourself with all of your heart and for all that you are. It’s only when you love yourself unconditionally for all that you are, that you’re able to love and accept all of others as well. Then forgiveness comes easy, and seems so natural. Our perceived faults are not flaws. They’re part of what makes us what we are. We’re all magnificent, beautiful beings of the universe, and all we ever need to be is ourselves. Being anything else is betraying yourself.
There’s no one known to me in this world that I have anything but love for. I’ve released the pain and animosity that I've held onto for so long towards both myself and others. I hope and pray that those that have felt animosity towards me are able to release their pain as well, in their own time and their own ways. I don’t want anyone to be hurting on my account when it’s so much better to just love. It's a great release to feel this sort of love towards all again, and a huge burden to have lifted. This has been such a long journey not just of a cancer fight, but of learning so much about life itself, the nature of the inner struggles that we face, the extent to which we can hurt, and of what it truly means to be human. Unconditional self-love and forgiveness has always been the way forward. I just needed to see it and feel it for myself for the very first time to believe it. True love knows know limitations, and has no boundaries. It has to start from within, and from there it can spread to everyone else.
Omnia Vincit Amor. Love conquers all.
Cross-posted at StevePake.com
Special Acknowledgements: Many of the thoughts in this essay had been floating around in my mind for the better part of two years, but I just couldn’t manage to get them together and see the big picture. About a year ago, a very thoughtful friend shared author Anita Moorjani’s TEDx talk, and I was struck by just how closely I related to her experiences as a cancer survivor, and as one who had a near death experience! It wasn’t her NDE that I related to, never having had one myself, but rather the spiritual death and reawakening that she experienced through her cancer journey. The ways in which she described some things in her TEDx talk were so similar to how I had thought and written of things on my own, and I was absolutely flabbergasted to have such a similar view! I finally read her incredible book over the summer, “Dying to Be Me”, and like magic, everything just clicked and came together. It’s been transformative and has taken me to another level, and I regret not having read it as soon as she popped up on my radar. I’ve never conversed with Anita personally, but have vowed to see her at one of her events, and hope to meet her in person one day. This is a great book for many, and especially if you’re struggling at the spiritual level as I have, it’s a must read.