Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Musings on the Planets

While hanging out (virtually) with other young adult cancer patients at a Dana-Farber event last week, I heard two bright and courageous men give very different perspectives on the question as to whether cancer has changed them.  One participant explained that his diagnosis of Stage 4 gastric cancer had changed him profoundly; that he will never be the same again.  Another participant described that his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma hadn’t changed him; that he is proud to be the same person that he was before cancer. 

I loved these two varying perspectives and honestly, could give examples from my own life to prove both of them to be true. At the same time, I’ve been thinking more about this and am desperate to find an answer that better suits me. On a work call this week, I unexpectedly got some help.

I had been speaking with a very experienced and successful professional ("Ken"), who knows that I have battled cancer. Ken was telling me that he doesn’t claim to know what it is like to have gone through what I have gone through. Ken told me, “It’s as if you’ve been to another planet and now you’re back.”  He admitted that he, like many others, has not seen that other planet, and thus, he cannot fathom what it is like to have returned from there.

Ken’s acknowledgement of the depth of my experience meant a lot to me. I’m not usually (ever?) drawn to people who claim to have all the answers and I am almost always drawn to those people who show by their actions that while they don't have all the answers, they still want to help. Ken is in the latter group. 

I thought about Ken's analogy for a second or two and almost broke my no-crying-at-work rule with my instinctive response.  "I love that analogy," I explained. "But the thing is that you never really get to go back."  Two years away from my diagnosis, I really don’t think that you do. 

Actually, I take that back. As I think more about it, perhaps it's possible for some people to return safely to the world that they knew before cancer. For many different reasons, however, I just don't think that I'm one of them.  

Still, I'm taken by this “visiting another planet” analogy, perhaps because the thoughts and emotions that this journey has evoked in me have, at times, been so dark and isolating and foreign that it often felt (or feels) like I’m on another planet.  These days, it's as if I have a commuting relationship between the two planets. One minute I'm lying on an ultrasound table wondering if the technician has found cancer in my liver or my pancreas and an hour later I'm riding bikes with my kids before logging into Citrix to start my work day. Well, that was this morning, anyways.

I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I'm someone who will float in a strange space between the two planets for a while longer, or maybe even, forever. I've met too many amazing people on the foreign planet to ever want to leave its atmosphere altogether, even if I am blessed with that choice. At the same time, I can't seem to plant my feet back in that world I lived in before August 8, 2012. A world where things like growing old were assumptions I made without any conscious thought.

I’ve thought a lot about how different people respond to a cancer diagnosis—how some people write about it for all the world to read while others don’t even tell some of the people closest to them until they've completed their treatment.  I’ve thought about how some people change lots of things after a diagnosis—their home, their spouse, their job, or their hobbies—while others hold onto what they already have even tighter. I've decided both of the participants are right.

Maybe cancer profoundly changes us by forcing us to move in the direction of who we really are and who we really want to be. For the lucky ones who were already there or heading that way, our world doesn't change much. But for those of us who had veered off-course somehow, cancer brings us back.