I had no idea it would take so long to recover from cancer. After months of radiation and chemotherapy my care providers were able to destroy the tumor and eradicate the cancer cells from my lymph nodes. However, it came at a price. Not only was my body physically damaged from the treatments, but my sense of self and my relationship to the world were forever altered. I still feel diminished—that my spirit and soul were also affected by the treatment. I also no longer have the energy and strength I had before my diagnosis.
As I got accustomed to the reality of a body that is forever altered I wanted to feel like I did before diagnosis and treatment. I wanted to regain my ability to experience joy and to again feel part of this world. I wanted to feel normal.
Well, come to find out through listening to other survivors’ stories, that just isn’t possible. We are altered physically and spiritually by cancer and there’s no going back. What we are told is we must find and accept a “new normal.” When I first heard that I understood immediately what was meant and how that applied to my life, but I dug my heels in like a child and cried, “No!” “I want to be me again!” I wanted to experience the life around me in the same way as before, to have the same hopes and dreams as before, to have the same relationship to the created world (and the unseen world) as before, to once again have the desire to live, and to have the impetus to start again to do those things that I had enjoyed before cancer.
It took well over a year to finally give up trying to be the old me and to start to figure out what my new normal actually was. It’s not been fun, easy, or pretty. But I feel that by surrendering to this process I have made some progress. I’m beginning to find joy in things again. Not like before, but in a quieter way. I’ve accepted that it is more difficult to read a book. I’ve compensated for not having as much strength anymore by adjusting what I do and when I do it. And I’ve lowered my expectations of myself.
At first this made me feel that my world had gotten so much smaller, that I had become even more insignificant than I was before. Blah, blah, blah….all self-pity. So, I’ve accommodated these feelings of being diminished by putting them on a shelf in my mind and try the best I can to not to look at them. I know they’re there, but I don’t let them define who I am. Of course I’m not always successful.
I’ve also had to adjust to not having the financial means to do many of the things I once did, like travel, go to the theatre, or have dinner out. Of course, part of this comes with ageing and not having put enough money away for retirement. (I hadn’t planned on retiring!)
I try to make a gratitude list whilst sitting in my apartment and looking out at the downtown skyline. I’m still so much better off than most people in the world. I also have lived a full adventurous life. I have very few regrets because I always chose to live life fully and to not make decisions based on material gain.
However, there are still things I wish I could do, but no longer have the physical ability or the financial means to do them. At times I feel trapped knowing I no longer have the wherewithal to start a new life someplace else or to participate in pastimes such as hiking and biking that once brought me such joy. If I dwell too long on this I can start to enter into despair and hopelessness. I end up cycling the words “if only” over and over in my head.
Even before cancer I had regrets about some of the choices I’ve made in my life that kept me from experiencing things I really wanted. We all have these. I’ve been luckier than most in that I’ve had the freedom to pursue my dreams without having to take others into account. But, still, I now again feel sadness knowing that some experiences will forever be out of my reach—that it’s just too late.
What has given me solace and provided me with a bit of serenity are the truths found in one of the Christian texts and in the writings of a Persian Sufi poet.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the disciple Thomas:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
I’d grown up with this Bible verse thinking it was just about going to heaven. It wasn’t until I was caught up in my grief about not having done and experienced certain things in my life, and realizing that I never would, that I gained a new understanding of what the Teacher meant. He’s saying not to worry about having missed out in this life, because in the next life—in God’s house—there are all these places you can reside where you will experience everything which was out of reach in this life.
Many forces and constructs keep people from doing and experiencing things that they want to do or be. Class, gender, and racial discrimination along with physical ability have restricted what can or cannot be achieved or realized. The scripture is telling us that the dwelling places are the opportunities that will be made available to us to do, have, and be all those things we feel we missed out on in our lifetime.
We’ll be able to experience the fulfillment of an occupation that we were not allowed to have. There will be mountains to climb and oceans to swim with strong youthful bodies. We’ll be able to feel sexy and desired. We will travel the world. Whatever it is that we need to feel complete, to feel whole, to feel unified and one with the creative force of the Universe will be provided us!
The second text, from the mystic Hafiz reveals this:
“Inherent in most suffering, especially of the mind or heart, is feeling, is believing, that you can miss something in life. But that is not true. For on your wedding day with the Sun, one of His presents to you will be – if you want it – every experience that has ever been known or can be known. Yes, a divine treasury awaits each soul. It is the INFINITE, infinite possibilities, that you can really borrow from at any moment, right now”.
This is even more astounding because it states upfront exactly what awaits you at the time of death! What a munificent, powerful, and loving God is this?! And not only do all these things await you, but knowing that, you can even now, while still in this existence, benefit from those things you will experience in the next life!
I never had the chance to be a teen idol, star in a motion picture, sing on Broadway, go biking across Scandinavia, or to have children of my own. But I believe in the promises given us by the Teachers. And just knowing that, I feel more fulfilled right now. I actually haven’t missed out on anything at all.
I look forward to dwelling in those places of infinite experience when I enter back into the realm of the Creator. I’m sure it will surpass my wildest dreams.
A rewritten version of this appeared in 3rd Act Magazine Autumn, 2022 issue.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION OR DISCUSSION
- What are some of the things that you have done that you wish you had done differently?
- What are your regrets?
- What have you not been able to do in this life that you realize you now won’t be able to experience or accomplish?
- How do you visualize the “many mansions” that are in the life to come?
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- Inherent in Suffering by Hafiz is from the interpretation/translation by Daniel Ladinsky.
- The Gospel reading is John 14:1-3