One year ago today, several of my organs were on the outside of my body. Surgeons had split me down the middle and gently removed some vitals in order to scrape out the cancerous lymph nodes still in my abdomen post-chemotherapy. Don’t worry, I didn’t see heaven or anything like that. This isn’t one of those stories. It’s a story about caring about stuff.
If you’re new to the blog, here’s a quick recap: terrible back pain -> me as the guest star in an episode of House -> testicular cancer diagnosis -> goodbye, Rightie -> chemo -> surgery -> eating pudding and watching The West Wing on Netflix while I recovered from surgery. That successful surgery is 365 days in my past and I’ve officially lived one full year as a survivor. There are unspoken responsibilities that come along with being a cancer survivor, and one of them is answering the question “So, did it really give you perspective?” a lot.
Now, that’s not an unfair question, because cancer inevitably affects many aspects of your worldview, many of which I’ve detailed in this very blog. But I also bristle at the question, too, because sometimes people are looking for a specific answer. And that answer is: “It really makes you thankful for what you have.” Sure, I guess you don’t know what you got til it’s gone, but it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, take cancer - or a trip to Africa, or volunteering at a soup kitchen - to make you thankful for what you have. I understand the perception that Americans live inside a bubble of entitlement, but I think it takes a particularly sociopathic kind of blindness to be eternally and wide-rangingly ungrateful.
But watch, audience members, as our author contradicts himself: I am more thankful. It’s just not in the way that’s immediately assumed. I am grateful for the pain, because now I understand it better. I am grateful for the struggle, because I can be of more use to those in the midst of it. Leslie Jamison recently published a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams and I’m eager to read it because the central question is “What’s the relationship between caring and understanding?” I got a hot six months of Rosetta Stone: Cancer and now I “get” most aspects of what those who suffer go through and it’s certainly transformed by ability to empathize. But, I promise, it doesn’t take that specific of an experience to really care.
My generation gets a bad rap. We’re known for conflating Gen X’s world-weary cynicism with the Baby Boomers’ embrace of self-important individualism. We’re supposedly disaffected by tragedy and success, unless we can spin it into an ironic meme. I think it’s an exaggerated generalization, but our selfies aren’t helping. And so, I make a simple plea that I’ve appropriated from a Madonna song: Open your hearts.
Be sensitive. Let yourself be affected by others’ hurt, try to understand their choices, and be an active player in the world around you. It’s the responsibility that’s most defined my first cancer-free year, and, moving forward, I hope to “open my heart” even more. Especially since’s it’s inside my chest for the time being.