February 28, 2024, was the 13th anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  In some ways, that day feels distant, and in some ways, it feels like it is happening in the present.  My body remembers that day, and the days of treatment and surgeries after it, which add up to almost two years.  

I can connect with the anxiety of cancer in an instant. I remember the taste of the saline going into my port when they accessed it for chemotherapy. I remember that strawberries tasted salty, that nothing tasted good for weeks on end but rice with ghee, and that even water was disgusting. I feel the discomfort of the looks people gave me when I was bald at the grocery store. I can recall with great detail the last night I went out wearing a dress with no scars on my upper chest, where there would later be a port scar on one side and a scar from cancer recurrence on the other. This list of horrors I remember could go on and on.

With time, the pain of most of these moments has softened. It has not gone away, and the physical pain I experience daily reminds me of what I have been through and continue to go through.  But the gripping fear of death, or even worse, more cancer treatment, is gone most days.  I see how I have made meaning from my suffering by helping my clients and friends with their cancer or chronic illness experiences. 

The biggest thing that has helped me, and I think many others, is that I am able to validate for myself and others that the experience of having a terminal or chronic illness really sucks.  I know that sounds simple and not at all clinical. But I cannot tell you how many people try to either cheer a sick person up or change the subject, rather than sitting with that person in their suffering and validating that the suffering exists. Fear of death or deeper suffering is not a skinned knee quickly healed with a bandaid, a joke, and a kiss. 

When we make space for the suffering, something marvelous can happen.  Less suffering.  Kind of like when you relax into a Chinese finger puzzle rather than keep pulling.  Naming the pain, seeing the pain, and honoring the pain result in less pain. 

Cancer has been a teacher. One I would gladly kick out if I could, but since I am stuck with it, learning to relax into it rather than fight it has created a more sustainable relationship between us.