They say cancer has something to teach everyone. But they don’t tell you what that thing is, which makes me feel anxious and tells me that cancer knows nothing about basic pedagogy (set your teaching goals forth clearly on the syllabus, for starters).*
Despite that, I think I am learning some things.
First: I’m learning I’m not good with uncertainty. The first way this hit me was my utter inability to plan anything throughout December. People would ask what I was doing for Christmas, and up until December 22, I didn’t know. Because I might have more tests, or might be in surgery or, wait, might start chemo instead, or…or…or… (I had Christmas at home, and extended the celebration with a hilarious** EKG on the 27th, if you want to know).
This, frankly, hurt as bad as the cancer diagnosis. I love planning. I love breaking one huge project into a million color-coded sub parts. Extra points if an Excel spreadsheet is somehow involved. I love finding a new planner format, and the perfect pens for the new planner. Some people play sports, or knit, or do improve. I plan.
Obvious lesson learned: I need better hobbies.
Also, sometimes, you don’t need to plan so much as put one foot in front of the other, in the direction someone knowledgeable tells you to go. There’s some freedom to this, if I can accept that I’m not in control. (Working on that.)
Second: I’m starting to accept that sometimes not doing something is doing something. It is extremely difficult for someone who has been almost insanely active to accept the need for stillness. In 2017, I taught, I organized countless community workshops to help parents plan for separation from their kids (#Thanks45), and I personally handled about a dozen cases pro bono and won most of them (still waiting on a few). I set up panel after panel about immigration developments for law students, schools, and community organizations, I revamped websites, and I led a nonprofit into financial health. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I probably did some other stuff that I’m forgetting.
And in 2017 I also got cancer. They don’t know what causes Inflammatory Breast Cancer (or, as I like to call it, my “go big or go home Breast Cancer”) but stress can’t help. Maybe all the commotion and anxiety and, frankly, trauma exposure was doing stuff under the surface unbeknownst to me.
And now in 2018, medicine is working under the surface, too. And when I have a day like today where I have some energy but am still lying on the couch, I need to accept that I’m not doing nothing. I’m giving my body space to heal itself and let the medicine do its work.
This is extremely difficult for me to accept. I do things. No one would accuse me of being passive toward life. And for now, I need to be quite passive. And to accept help more than give it.
What’s the good of learning that, anyway? I’m still figuring it out, but I think maybe that giving my body space and time is also going to end up giving my head and heart the space and time they need to rest and heal and, ultimately, reboot and reenergize.
I’m going to come through all this different, I know. And the planner in me wants to know how, and the do-er in me wants to chart it all out and maximize every minute. So many color-coding possibilities! But I’ve already learned that I need to quietly shush the planner and the do-er and let them know they can have their day again in the future. Their day is not now.
And while I continue to lie here on the couch, and maybe read a book, I’m going to trust that I’m not just lying around reading a book. I’m moving one step forward in the direction I’m supposed to go.
* And then weep as students ignore the syllabus and miss the teaching goals (and also the readings, the due dates, the structure of the final exam, and so much more).
** Of course I got the chatty doc who used to train med students in Liberia in the 70s, just a few years after my parents and oldest three siblings lived there. So I know some stuff about Liberia, which apparently made me her favorite EKG subject ever. I think she threw in some extra heart pictures for free. Because she took a lot of pictures.