If my experiences as a cancer patient/ “terminal” “diagnosee” are at all typical, then the following generalization might in fact be true: certain situations and/or feelings that were once tolerated before diagnosis are nearly impossible to tolerate after diagnosis: traffic, waiting in lines, rudeness, compromise, sacrifice, delayed/deferred gratification, to list just a few. Life becomes so much more precious, that wasting some of it – or the perception of wasting some of it – on unpleasant, unrewarding, aggravating, stressful, menial tasks, obligations, duties, etc. becomes almost too much to bear; on a consistent basis, anyway. It’s a reverse bucket list. It’s less about what you want to do/accomplish and more about what you don’t want to do/endure. Avoiding unpleasantness becomes as important as finding happiness. Getting high on life is the epitome, but if you’re frequently getting low on living, you are not merely adding by subtracting, you are neutralizing. And though there may be a net gain emotionally, the associated pain and suffering may ultimately minimize the benefit.
And minimizing benefits is hardly the stuff of which cancer patients’ dreams are made. You need to maximize, not minimize. You need to reinforce every positive and eliminate any and all negatives, disconnecting and disengaging along the way if necessary; remembering that your life may depend on it. There’s no future – literally and figuratively, in being miserable (or being made to feel miserable). Life is challenging enough without a cancer diagnosis. Being told by an oncologist that you only have “13 months to two years” to live turns that challenge into a directive almost. The prognosis is not so much given/meant as a guarantee as much as it is a presumption (based on a variety of tests/scans) that time will indeed tell. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to not take those words personally, especially since you’re hearing them from a professional. Believing them is hard enough, but devising some sort of strategy to embrace/assimilate and incorporate them into a lifestyle you want to live is sort of a management problem for which most of us haven’t been trained and even less of us prepared for. It’s hard knocks that school never taught. That was college prep., not cancer prep. And even though you’re not exactly fending for yourself once you’re in the cancer whirled, you are in a world not of your own making, and a world (of emotions) likely never imagined and certainly not anticipated.
How you navigate, how you survive becomes a series of very personal choices. After all, it’s your life (actually in this column, it’s my life), and we have to live it. Obviously I am responsible for my own actions, but I have to be responsible for my own “inactions,” too. Solving problems, minimizing hassles, finding solace, accepting limitations, living and learning are all less effective if I’m distraught in the process. Happiness is one thing. Unhappiness is quite another.