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Paradox of Cancer

“It was my year off from the world,” a nurse told me when I was in the Emergency Room with side effects from chemo. He’d had cancer too, and it took him a year to get through treatment. His manner was calm, a contrast from the panicky vibes I picked up from others in the room. He seemed at peace. 

I was too weak to respond, too tired even to think straight, but I heard his nugget of wisdom and filed it away to ponder later. Little did I know at the time, but the reality of my cancer journey was going to mirror a greater paradox of life, one I started to become aware of during my foggy interaction that day.  

I learned that what we often think to be true may be the polar opposite of reality.

My cancer kicked in on New Year’s Day, an easy date to remember, and an easy spot from which to log the milestones of this winding journey. At times, I looked and felt so sick that death seemed imminent. But during the first part of chemo, I looked healthier than ever because I lost a few pounds. People told me I never looked better, and my husband said I was smoking hot; in fact, I was the unhealthiest I’d ever been. “We’re going to bring your body as close to death as we can,” one doctor told me. “And that’s how we’re going to make you well.”

That’s a weird paradox.

How could people think I looked so improved when my body was at war? Underneath my stylish “hair” was a head bald from toxic, cancer-fighting medicine. My wig ensured that every hair was in place, and my lack of confidence prompted me to labor over makeup like I’d be walking the red carpet, but underneath my looser clothes was a frame that could barely ingest the nutrition it needed.

While my body slimmed down, I was enjoying chocolate milkshakes, the only food I found appealing. In fact, to say those milkshakes were appealing is an understatement. I loved them, loved the whipped creme, the guilty pleasure of knowing I could have as much as I wanted. What 49-year-old gets to do that and still lose weight? Better looks and endless milkshakes during unprecedented illness wasn’t the only paradox.

When I got my diagnosis, I had a lot to learn, fast. Medical people used words I’d never heard of and discussed treatments I couldn’t pronounce. Insurance companies denied medicine I didn’t know I needed and delay procedures I didn’t know existed. The more I learned, the more I understood the enormity of my ignorance. When I needed it the most, my brain didn’t work.

So, while I struggled with this feeling of incompetence, with my ongoing failure to remember terms that would have such an impact on my life, I remembered still another of life’s great inconsistencies, one I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur: the more we fail, the more likely we are to succeed.

Babies learn that lesson early, probably before they’re even aware of the effort they’re making. When they take those first wobbly steps before a face plant, it’s hard not to feel charmed and inspired. They try, they fail, they try again. They fail again. They even seem to enjoy the process. And eventually, they get it. 

So I keep trying, and I keep failing. But every once in a while, there’s a spark, a small success. And those moments keep me going when I feel discouraged about my ratio of successes to failures. An instructor once told me that no matter how difficult it is, life is beautiful. Then she said, no matter how beautiful it is, life is difficult.

So when I finally had the time to ponder the wisdom that ER nurse demonstrated, the only person in the room who radiated calm amidst tumult, I thought about cancer as a paradox. Because now that my emergency is over, I realize that my deepest moments of peace are tied, inextricably, to disease – to the chaos, fear, hope, love, angst, and endurance – that I started learning about in earnest that memorable New Year’s Day, a day particularly suited for contemplation and new beginnings.


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