The challenge to resist victim-hood is faced by all of us with cancer. Falling prey to such emotion leads to self pity and dissolves the spirit needed to effectively fight this disease.
Cancer arrives with a crew, of hopes, fears and powerfully independent emotions. A fellow patient, a new friend, recently told me the story of his original diagnosis and its impact on his personality. His self portrait seems unlike the man I know today, but he assures me it's accurate, an image he checks himself against each day:
He was jealous of the attention bestowed on another patient. The other guy, also fighting cancer, seemed to be there each time he visited the Dana Farber for treatment. He was young as well, but needed a wheelchair at times, the result of the disease and the trauma of a heavy chemo load.
My friend, John, had it in his head that the nurses and doctors had less concern for him than for the young guy in the wheelchair, whom we'll call Patrick. One day sitting in the Dana Farber waiting area, John was particularly miserable.
His wife, grown weary of his attitude, confronted him. "Are you in such pain, has something happened to cause you to be so depressed?"
He became silent refusing to answer. She told him she had been watching his reaction to Patrick and demanded to know why the 'poor guy' was getting under his skin?
'The poor guy!' he snapped. 'Why is he such a poor guy? I have cancer and nobody is fawning over me."
She was shocked. For the first time the depths of his self pity were clear and she realized the darkness he was forming around his soul.
'John,' she said quietly, gathering her things, 'the difference between you two is that Patrick is squeezing every last drop out of life in the time he has left while you're looking for people to feel sorry for you.'
She stood up reached into her purse and flipped the car keys which he caught mid air, an inch from the end of his nose.
'You take the car,' she said. 'I'll grab a taxi and go to work before I lose my job because I'm spending time babysitting you.'
He was stunned and embarrassed and allowed the jangling keys to fall to his lap. He tried to ignore those sitting around him in the waiting room as they shuffled newspapers or looked at the floor. Finally, he pushed himself from the seat and walked out through the automatic door to the parking circle and breathed some real, unfiltered air.
It was a busy clinic day with a bustle of hurried nurses and doctors, people dressed in suits who had an, 'I'm in charge' look on their faces, and patients whose sallow skin and degree of hair loss described the intensity of the treatment they endured. Some were happily engaged in animated conversations with friends or loved ones. Others shuffled along, insolently self absorbed and familiarly alone.
The sun was hot. His first thought was to find some shade before perspiration wilted the creases of his crisp white shirt, which he would find most annoying. He looked about for some form of protection just as a light, cooling breeze wafted gently against his face to produce a pleasant sensation on his skin. He stopped looking for shade.
He sat on the back of a wrought iron bench and after a moment, closed his eyes and turned his face skyward. Something caused him to simply let go and he felt the universe open. He had a brief sensation of being drawn toward the vastness of space, out of the smothering isolation of his life. He saw the insignificance of himself, but also his importance as part of the constituency of the living, integrated into the fiber of every other.
And just as suddenly he was back. He still had cancer, the pain, the fear; but the sun was bright, the breeze was cool and his shirt looked good.
"I'll stay out here for a bit longer," he thought.