This may surprise you, but the truth is that cancer doesn’t hurt. Not for me, anyway. The lump had been there for almost three years. It didn’t bother me much. The doctors told me it was a harmless mass of cells. Years later, I went back to get it checked again and got the diagnosis: breast cancer, stage two. One big piece of cancer in my right breast and four smaller lumps under my armpit.
At some point between then and now, it became cancer. Sometimes I wonder how long ago those cells turned deadly. How long had I been coming and going, complaining about my job, cooking dinner, falling asleep, and waking up while there was cancer growing in my body?
When I first got the news, before treatment started, people would ask, “Do you feel sick?”
“No. I feel completely normal.”
Isn’t that the scariest thing about it? Most of the time, the cancer itself doesn’t make you feel a thing until right before it kills you. That’s why so many cancers aren’t detected until it’s too late. Unless it’s already killing you, you probably won’t know it’s there. It can grow for years and years. My doctor told me about one lady who had a cancerous lump for a decade before having it checked out.
After I began treatment, my answer to the question, “how are you feeling?” has drastically changed. Before chemotherapy began, I felt 100% normal. In the weeks after my first treatment, I was tired, nauseous, had blurry vision and a scaly mouth, was breaking out on my face and chest, and had extreme shortness of breath. I lost 25 pound because all I could keep down was ice.
How strange is it that living with the cancer all those years was painless, while killing the cancer is incapacitating? Often the pain of recovery is worse than the pain of the initial injury. I think there is something worth digging into here.
Old pain, distrust, and unhealthy thinking can be essentially painless as long as they’re under the surface. But oh, don’t they grow? It’s strange how one can function day-to-day just fine without ever acknowledging the diseases of the soul that are silently killing.
Coasting through life with resentment and anger on your back is pretty painless after a while. So many of us do it without even noticing. But really taking the time to find the root of anger is exhausting. So is the decision to forgive someone who isn’t sorry for how they damaged you. But these steps are the healing ones.
The point that I’m making is this: Do not be afraid of pain. Dealing with our pain is the path to healing.
When I was younger, a man taught me an important lesson with a tomato. He held it up and said, “this tomato is your heart.” He took a chopstick and stabbed the tomato, juice dripping out. “This is when your parent tells you you’re not good enough.” And another stab, “This is when your boyfriend leaves you for someone better.” And another, “This is when you get less than you deserve.” And on and on.
When he was finished, he had a soupy tomato in his hand. He told me that all of us have arrows in our heart. We don’t have much choice about if we will get hurt. But we do have the choice to either leave the arrows there, or to pull them out. We can let ourselves heal around the arrows in our hearts. But then we will feel the pain all again anytime someone brushes against those arrows. In a sense we will carry the pain with us forever.
If we take the arrows out, the pain will be excruciating, but it will allow our hearts to truly heal. That way, we don’t have to guard ourselves so dearly. We won’t have to fear the pain of old wounds. We won’t have to walk around forever infected by sadness.
How many cancers are silently living in you right now? I’m not talking about a physical cancer, but I’m talking about unfairness, resentment, and anger. How many traumatic memories are you still clinging to? How many arrows have you been too afraid to remove? How much pain is still unresolved?
I’ve had to do this again and again throughout my journey with cancer. No young woman should have to wake up in the hospital with no breasts. No person should come this close to death at 26. I grieve that reality. But I can’t ignore the love found in hundreds of letters that came to my mailbox–from new acquaintances and also very old friends. I cannot ignore the way my heart has been refilled over and over by my husband who dries my tears faster than they form, and helps me pick out clothes that make me look “not so cancery.”
Walking through cancer has taught me this: joy and pain must answer to each other. Both are real and both are powerful. We cannot live in denial of the pain and allow the arrows to block access to our hearts. We also cannot refuse joy out of fear that we will be disappointed. Courage is being faithful to taste the pain and to grieve it. Courage is also leaving fear behind to reach out for armfuls of joy.
The pain is real and true. Taste it, grieve it. Heal. The joy is pure and so loud. Reach for it.
(An Excerpt from Jane’s Journey)