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Cancer Never Taught Me Any Wonderful Life Lessons

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Not a week goes by where I don’t see a story pop up in my feed with some feel-good headline like: “Cancer Taught Me What’s Really Important in Life,” “Facing Cancer Taught Me How to Truly Live,” or “Cancer Taught Me to Enjoy Every Moment.”

And I think, Huh. All cancer taught me was debilitating anxiety.

What a ripoff.

I’m not sure why or how society has expected those who’ve gone through cancer treatments to have reaped some rewards from the ordeal.

To be a “good survivor,” it seemed I needed to let everyone know that there were gifts hidden in a cancer diagnosis. Was it my duty as someone who’d been through it to comfort those who may be next by telling them of something good to come out of it? Was I now supposed to stand as some testament to how quickly life can take a turn for the worse and constantly remind others to enjoy what they have? Honestly, that’s what my anxiety disorders do to me and I hate it.

Perhaps, the reason for these optimistic expectations lies in the belief, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But I call bull.

To be fair, I had underlying anxiety disorders before my cancer diagnosis. But, I am not stronger now, mentally nor physically, than I was before I had cancer. My body may now be cancer-free once again but it is not stronger than it was pre-cancer. The surgeries and treatments necessary to eradicate the cancer introduced a slew of new long-term risks and chronic health concerns. The emotional and psychological strain of the experience exacerbated my mental health issues with compounding, long-lasting repercussions.

I am worse off, both physically and mentally, than I was before cancer. It is the truth. It is a fact. And it makes people uncomfortable if I say so.

And, while I believe many people do go through experiences such as cancer and discover deeper meaning in their lives, have their eyes opened, or learn valuable lessons, I’d like to also submit that it is OK if that isn’t the case. Sometimes an experience just sucks and it is fine to leave it at that.

For a long time, I felt shame and guilt over the fact that I didn’t glean any gifts from my experience — I must be doing it wrong. The “positive vibes only” crowd would surely point out that I needed to count my blessings and practice gratitude. But what they fail to realize is that I am grateful — immensely grateful — to be alive. Grateful to be done with chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Grateful for every birthday I get to celebrate, every year I’ve survived. But I am not, and never will be, grateful to have had cancer. And that is OK.

It took a lot of therapy for me to realize that.

I don’t need to feel guilt or shame over speaking my truth, even if it differs drastically from so many of the experiences I see portrayed. Even if it seems to lack optimism. Even if it makes people uncomfortable.

If you’ve gone through something heavy, you don’t have to make light of it for the sake of others.

This story originally appeared on Invisible Illness.

Follow this journey on Elizabeth Joyce

Getty image by Nuthawut Somsuk

Originally published: January 24, 2022
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