An important cancer lesson
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
DECEMBER 17, 2019
Anyone who knows me is well aware that I never suggest that having cancer is, in any way, a blessing. I am not a better person because I have had two breast cancers, and I certainly am a more imperfect person physically than I was before both experiences.
However, I do believe that cancer brings us an opportunity to step back from our busy lives and reflect on the choices we make and the ways that we live. It is usually not exactly a choice to take this time out; it is impossible to maintain all of our obligations and responsibilities while recovering from surgery or contending with chemotherapy or going to daily radiation therapy. This period of enforced rest, or at least of enforced reduced activity, gives us a chance to consider how we manage our time. We may decide that it really is not necessary to produce gourmet dinners every single night or change all the sheets twice a week or (and I do know women who admitted that they used to do this) iron almost everything that goes through the family laundry. Indeed, it is a good time to teach everyone in the family to do his/her own laundry and reduce that particular workload permanently.
We can think about the people with whom we spend time and make a conscious decision to stop seeing people who are negative or who bring us down. We don't need to listen endlessly to our gossipy neighbor or a complaining co-worker who does not seem to recognize that her distress about her son's work habits is not comparable to our distress about living with a potentially fatal disease.
This line of thought always reminds me of Bonnie, a lovely young mother who had a bone marrow transplant some years ago. She was only a couple of weeks out of the hospital when a so-called friend asked her to accompany her to pick up a new car. The so-called friend needed a second driver as she was keeping her current vehicle. On the way to the car dealership, she reportedly complained about the unfortunate reality that she had not been able to afford the Mercedes of her dreams and had to settle for a less expensive car. Bonnie was focused on trying to live to see her daughter finish kindergarten, and this cheaper car did not seem like a major crisis. Thinking about our friendships and actively choosing to spend more time with the people who make us happy and less with those who drag us down is a very healthy strategy.
And here is the cancer lesson that I most want to share today: Start from no. What does this mean? Most of us, especially women, are raised and socialized to be helpful, to say yes when asked to do a favor (case in point: Bonnie above) and then to often find ourselves overwhelmed and exhausted and still in the kitchen at midnight, baking cupcakes for the class party. It is initially an effort to change our instincts and knee-jerk reactions, but this is a very wonderful gift you can give yourself: Start from no. Whenever someone asks anything of you, pause before answering and think about if this is an invitation you want to accept or a task you will enjoy or something that seems important. If so, of course you say yes. But you can train yourself to stop immediately agreeing with the ask, consider your own wishes and energy, and to make the decision that is right for you at that moment. Start from no
If having cancer and going through difficult treatments can teach you only one thing (and it likely will teach you many others), this is a good one.