I survived — now how do I survive my survival?

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008

 


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


 

Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)

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Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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