I should probably be afraid of Tom Hanks. His movies are the ones I seem to be watching just before those I love depart this world. Morbid, I know, but it’s amazing the things you remember after traumatic events. My mum and I loved watching movies together and on the night she died from cancer I was sitting by her bedside watching ‘Forrest Gump’. You could say we got to share one last movie together after the four tough years she had suffered from cancer. That was 2008. Fast forward to 2015 and I am sitting by the bedside of my dear friend who is gravely ill with cancer watching ‘Turner and Hooch’. Little did I know just days later he too would die from cancer, but in that moment I was just grateful to be there holding his hand.
Losing loved ones to any disease is an extremely painful experience and as with any death a person can go through the five stages of grief… denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. For me I would go one step further and add gratitude to the list. This is not to say I wasn’t grateful before cancer but now I have a more mindful gratitude. I am grateful in the present moment even when that present moment is difficult. I am grateful for a hand held while watching Tom Hanks even when someone I love is dying right before my eyes.
Let me say more because I realise it’s a strong statement to make. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer my whole life changed. The diagnosis was terrifying, the treatment was often horrific, her death nearly suffocated me. For a long time I felt like I was just surviving rather than living. Then I started to remember how she lived, how she laughed, how she showered us with love. I remembered especially how she lived through cancer helping those around her deal with the diagnosis even smiling with nurses and joking with serious oncologists, while also suffering silently so as not to worry us. In personal therapy I worked through my sadness and loss and came to a place of compassion; a place where I could view myself as she would have viewed me in suffering. When I imagined my mother seeing me struggle through life without her, a warmth came over me; a complete sense of loving kindness enveloped me with a whisper saying “Go easy on yourself Nead”. A reassuring sentence she would often say to me when I pushed myself too hard or criticised myself for feeling a certain way.
What I have learned in my studies as a psychotherapist and now as I research the emotional experience of cancer for my doctorate, is that we can be so hard on ourselves in the face of pain. We can condemn ourselves further in our suffering. We say things like “I should be dealing with this better” or ” I should be able to cope”. Perhaps it is a very Irish thing to say “Get up outta that bed now, sure you’re grand” and other such amusing T-shirt slogans. We have a tendency to brush the pain aside and just get on with it. We’re only human, yet we struggle to allow ourselves to be human. As a therapist I’ve had the great privilege of sitting with men and women going through cancer and often the response to having self-compassion or self-kindness is “I can’t give up” or “You want me to give in?”. But perhaps in the ‘fight’ against cancer we fight ourselves. I am not so fond of the cancer ‘battle’ expression. I feel it implies my mother lost her battle when she died or that she was a loser in some way because she did not survive. One day during her treatment, when tiredness was getting the better of my brothers and I, we started arguing over hospital visits, chemo drugs and other such stressful cancer-related things. My mother quietly said “I am fighting cancer while you are fighting each other”. It broke my heart to tell you the truth. So often we get caught up in the stress and the worry and pain without even seeing the struggle we are in. Perhaps we begin to take on the cancer battle in everything and forget how to be kind to ourselves (and others) while fighting.
That is why cancer taught me compassion in suffering. Compassion is not pity. Compassion is that feeling we get when we encounter suffering combined with the urge to want to try and end that suffering. By going through the loss I had suffered I saw myself in a new light. I could witness my pain through the loving eyes of my mother. Paul Gilbert writes about cultivating compassion by taking a bird’s eye view of the situation we are in and looking, from this more removed perspective, with a loving lens on our suffering. I believe compassion is a key step on the journey toward acceptance or even allowance of the current situation. While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion suggesting it reduces stress levels, fights the ageing process and makes us feel good by boosting our immune system.
Yes my whole life changed after cancer. But through such loss came such life. I have had the privilege of working with cancer patients; I have walked the Camino with men and women who have lived through cancer and I have learned to love in a more grateful way because of my own cancer journey. I have listened to cancer patients in my research study and while walking ‘the way’ and all have remarked on how cancer can bring a gratitude for life like no other experience. In losing my mum to cancer and becoming more self-compassionate and more grateful especially when suffering, I have been given a new perspective on life. I could hold the hand of my dear friend dying from cancer and feel only love and gratitude for having known him and only love and gratitude toward myself for having been there for him, even in my own suffering. When we have the courage to face our own pain, to allow it without self-judgment or self-criticism, only then can we move past it to freely enjoy and be grateful for all that life has to offer. When I am going through a tough time, those I have loved and lost are closest. Their love has helped me love myself… and for that I am grateful.