Just as you share in our sufferings,
so also you share in our comfort.
II Corinthians 1:7
A diagnosis of cancer can have a way of immediately drawing a person into a place of fear. Fear for one’s life, fear for one’s health and well being, fear of loss of control and fear of the unknown may all surface. All this fear left me rather self-focused. A very big event is suddenly taking place in my life and in my body, demanding my full attention.
I could feel my focus shifting after I was diagnosed with cancer. I became myopic, seeing only what was close at hand. This big thing was happening to me! That is how it seemed to my limited eyes. The truth was that this big thing was happening to my husband, to my kids, to my extended family, to my friends, to my clients, even to people I did not know very well. I was in shock. They were in shock. I was afraid. They were afraid. This diagnosis raised issues for me. It also raised issues for each of them. I struggled with unhealthy ways of coping. They struggled with unhealthy ways of coping.
As a result, the people I relied on for support were sometimes numb to the situation and unresponsive to my needs. Sometimes they said things that were expressions of their own anxieties and were not at all helpful to me. I struggled with confusion and hurt over all of this.
But, by God’s grace, I was soon able to see that in some very real ways this breast cancer was not just my breast cancer. This breast cancer was happening to all of us. I was the one who had to go through the tests, the surgeries and the treatments. But at least it was reasonably clear what I was supposed to do. What other people were supposed to do was less obvious, less concrete. That left people sometimes feeling helpless and anxious.
Everyone had their own way of dealing with their anxiety. One of my closest friends, someone I could always turn to and always trust, said some things that I experienced as surprisingly hurtful. She seemed a thousand miles away. I asked God to show me what to do because I could feel myself wanting to withdraw.
One day, through tears, I told her that I was wondering if she was feeling a lot of anxiety about my cancer and if that was why she seemed distant. With this friend, that was all that was needed. In an instant she was in tears, saying “I don’t want this to be happening to you. I want to make this go away. And I can’t. So I think I have gone away. I am sorry.”
I did not have conversations like this with many people. Mostly, I needed to begin to learn from my friend’s words about what other people in my life were experiencing. As I began to accept that this event was happening to everyone in my life, I was able to make room for other people’s fears and numbness and denial and protective distance. This made it possible to better accept their gifts of love and support and kindness when they were able to offer them.
I was also able to see that there were some things that people in my life needed from me. They needed me to take care of myself, to give them some room to struggle with their own reactions to my struggle, and to receive their love for me.
What I experienced is true of much of life. Nothing happens to us alone. Whatever is going on in our lives always impacts many others. If we are hurt, the hurt is ours and it belongs to others as well. If we are experiencing joy, the joy is ours and it also belongs to others. If we are making destructive choices, other people are impacted. If we are making healthy choices, other people benefit.
It is not unusual for a person seeking counseling to feel that getting help for themselves is somehow selfish. People often feel that they are talking too much about themselves and thinking too much about their problems. Usually people who struggle with this are people who have spent their lives focused on other people’s needs and feelings and who have spent little, if any, time exploring their own.
I always tell people who express this kind of distress that seeking help for themselves is not selfish. It is a gift to the people in their lives. In fact, it is always a gift to the people in our lives when we do anything to take care of ourselves or to bring healing and positive change in our lives. After my husband and I had worked hard in marriage therapy and found healing in our relationship, our oldest son thanked us. “Thank you for doing the work and sticking with it,” he said. “You greatly improved the quality of my life.”
The state of our marriage. My breast cancer. Our lives, and the events in our lives, do not belong to us alone. No one stands or falls alone. We are deeply connected to each another. We are family.
When you don’t know what to do…realize that this is happening to everyone in your life.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. Who else is being impacted directly or indirectly by the difficulty you are going through?
2. In what ways is it useful for you to remember that this situation is impacting others as well as you?