I find myself often telling people that I am a better person since being diagnosed with cancer. “Why is that?” is generally the question that follows.
To put it briefly, I see people with more tolerance and treat them with more respect. I was never a bad person, as defined by societal norms. I knew right from wrong, treated people politely, stayed out of legal trouble (except once when I was 14 and got caught skinny dipping in the local swimming pool), and generally “colored within the lines” of life. I went through my days in a rose-colored haze as a cisgender, heteronormative, Caucasian who was healthy, had a good job, a nice home, and a great family.
As with most people, I would be moved by stories of unemployment, homelessness and food insecurity of others. And I would be angered by news of violence and discrimination. I volunteered for years at different organizations, cooking for the homeless, facilitating grief groups at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, spending time helping the illiterate learn to read and so on. I was saying and appearing to be doing all the right things. According to the rubric of good deeds in life, I was scoring fairly high.
It wouldn’t be until I was diagnosed with cancer that I would come to understand the harsh reality that I had been doing this human thing all wrong. I was unknowingly a sheeple following the herd without standing up for anyone or anything. I was ambivalent, never really having a strong opinion for or against most things, finding it much easier to be non-confrontational and letting the masses make up my mind and choose my path. And I came to learn that volunteering was only half the necessary components needed for making a truly great life.
Cancer has a way of dehumanizing a person. It takes away any modesty one may have, doesn’t allow for any privacy, thrusts pain, worry and fear onto everyone in its wake and strips away any semblance of normalcy. Cancer is evil at its purest form and it will change you; it certainly changed me.
But the change for me wasn’t all bad. Through its dehumanization process, I became more open and honest with myself and others, being able to articulate better how I felt about and for someone, learning that sugar-coating is not necessarily the best way to navigate life. I learned how to love better including my friends, my family, and strangers. And I came to understand how it felt to be in a quasi-marginalized community of people, one where passerby’s on the street stared because I looked different with my bald head and lack of eyebrows and lashes. I began to know what the look of pity must feel like for those on a street corner holding a sign asking for help. My world opened up in ways I had not previously realized were lacking.
My happy-go-lucky life with my full belly, warm house, and good job were all shaky because of the financial, emotional and physical strains of cancer. I began to empathize with those who were alone, scared and isolated because of their difference. I learned this was my missing piece to what could be a greater life.
My journey through my own difference afforded me an entirely new array of friends that are as diverse and far-reaching as one could imagine. My health is good right now and I could easily go back to my rose-colored world and live in peace without any strife, choosing to forget the looks of pity and the feelings of difference. But I choose a different path – thanks to the eye-opening of my diagnosis. I choose the path of true empathy and kindness.
I now stand up for people making my voice heard on their behalf, no longer worried about how it may look or be interpreted. I voice my own opinion whether popular or not, and I walk beside those whom I have never outwardly supported before in the face of discrimination and hatred. I am now okay not being liked for choosing the rough road if it means doing the right thing for others. I now speak kinder, pray more earnestly, have more tolerance and walk my talk. And I am a much better person for it.