Cancer World

By Guest Blogger   |  6Comments|

An unexpected benefit of holding your baby while she dies is the wisdom that comes from tragedy and deep, deep suffering.

Some years ago, I discussed this with my friend and spiritual mentor, Marge. At the time, I was pregnant with my third son, and Marge was living with terminal cancer. We had been friends for some years, since about the time my newborn daughter Grace died.

Marge and I would spend time together while she dealt with the business of her cancer. I drove her to her chemo appointments, and we would talk about our spiritual lives while they pumped the cancer-fighting poison into her veins, and I would try to keep my last baby from being born too soon.

After the chemo no longer worked, I would drive Marge to the hospital where they would drain her abdomen so she wasn’t in so much pain. By this time, my baby had been born, and we would lug him with us. All the while, we would talk about what her cancer and my daughter Grace had taught us about life, hope, gratitude and such.

And, finally, her family and I stayed with her while she journeyed to the next place without us. I didn’t bring my baby with me that time. Her death wasn’t on our schedule that day.

Today, though, I’m reminded of earlier times – like, for instance, the day Marge tossed her hair in the trash. When she woke up that morning, she turned around and saw that all of her hair was still lying on the pillow.

When I asked her how she managed to cope with all that her cancer was teaching her, she shared with me the secret of “reframing” your story so that it fit the idea of “success.” She taught me that progress and success are measured differently in the “Cancer World.” She spoke about the Cancer World as if it was a kind of parallel universe to our own. Sort of like an old episode of “Star Trek.”

For example, among those in the Cancer World, Marge was “lucky” because her particular cancer released a special enzyme in her blood that qualified her for a new, experimental chemotherapy drug. The one that wiped out her hair.

There’s even gratitude in the Cancer World. For example, Marge was truly grateful that, on the morning she woke up without her hair, he rpartner John lovingly shaved away the wisps of what remained. But the magic wasn’t just that Marge was grateful for loving gestures like that, it was also that we were all allowed to participate in her experience in a way that stretched us as well.

When Marge asked John how he had the spiritual strength to stay with her, to shave her head, to hold her through her illness, he said, “It’snot doing what you want to do in life that really counts, Marge. It’s doing what you have to do.”

At the most basic of levels, Marge’s cancer brought us all new perspective, gratitude, courage and strength.

Meanwhile, as Marge came closer and closer to the day of her death, she grew more and more luminescent. For me, Marge redefined beauty. Even without the hair.

When I came for her, she’d be decked out in a red-hot turban. Many cancer patients underplay their newly bald heads. Not Marge!

She was claiming her experience. She put it out there for the world to see and embrace. She knew how to take the fear out of cancer, and show the rest of us what true beauty and grace looked like.

The cancer also helped Marge learn to roar. She was a diminutive woman, but you wouldn’t know it if you ticked her off.

I told her that her new beautiful rage felt like being hit with the velvet hammer. Her punch was soft, but you felt its kick for quite some time.

Often, people would make the mistake of telling Marge how “inspiring” she was. Oooooh, that would really chap her butt!

“I’m sick and tired of being the poster child for living successfully with cancer,” she would roar at whisper level. And then she’d soften the aftershock of her mini-tirade with a charming little giggle and her signature elfin smile.

Hearing those words took me back to the early months afte rmy newborn daughter Grace died. I told Marge that people used to say to me,”Oh, I admire your courage so much.” Or, worse, “You’ve grown so much from this experience.”

While I could empathize with the difficulty of choosing the “right thing” to say to the mother of a dead baby, I wanted to smack them. Hard.

Wisdom from tragedy is like life giving you the Spiritual Booby Prize. It’s like being the losing contestant on Monty Hall’s game show,”Let’s Make a Deal.” There you are, dressed like a radish, so you can catch Monty’s attention.

Finally, you are awarded the opportunity for a prize, except in this version, you don’t get to choose between Curtain Number One and Curtain Number Two. The “lovely Carol Merrill” chooses for you. And when she reveals what’s behind the Curtain of your experience, there stands your Spiritual Booby Prize.

It’s Big.

It’s Hairy.

It’s Flea-ridden.

It’s a Yak!

Monty’s other contestant just won a red-hot Ferrari – and you? Well, you got the yak.

That’s what the Spiritual Booby Prize of death and suffering feel like.

Other people have their health, their babies, their breasts, and you get the yak. And then, in a total twist of irony, all of the healthy, well-endowed parents want to shake your hand!

God, we hooted! And, for that moment, laughter healed and we were whole.

And then we saddled up our hairy old yaks (hers sporting a Ferrari-red turban) and went on about the business of living.

Jennifer Boykin’s vision is to help women recapture their mid-life mojo. She speaks, teaches and writes as the Creative Visionary and Chief Rabble-Rouser of the mid-life reinvention site, LifeAfter Tampons. When you visit, sign upfor your eRetreat, Reclaim the Sass. It’s free … because you’re priceless.

Photo credit: sookie

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6 responses to Cancer World
  1. Jennifer – this post was brilliant. It hit the range of notes of a trauma melody. The humor was perfectly placed. I loved that you didn’t try to sugar coat or cheapen the experience of such tragedy but also beautifully expressed the humor and depth that these experiences can provide us.

    As a 20-year childhood cancer survivor who is still on the healing path, your post really touched me.

    Thank youl

  2. I have a son with severe cerebral palsy. I know that our challenges in life are as varied as our personalities, but I felt a deep connection to your story. Thank you for sharing it here.

  3. Hi, Rachel. Thank you for writing in. Aren’t we lucky that we have the internet to connect in this way? One of the difficulties of dealing with ongoing challenges is the “isolation factor.” But because of true and honest communities like here at crazysexylife, we can connect with each other and say this — You are SO NOT alone!


  4. Thank you. I’ve been taking care of my mother with Alzheimers for the last 5 years, and sometimes even though I chose to do this, the pity party gets pretty loud. There is a quote in there that I’ll put up on the wall. “It’s not doing what you want to do in life that really counts, it’s doing what you have to do.”
    Thank you again!

  5. Thanks, I think I’ll saddle up my yak now.

  6. perfect. we all need to learn how to be supportive without making the person with the illness have to take care of our feelings about what is going on with them. move on and enjoy each other : )