As the world opens back up, I’m getting chances to meet more and more new people.
Which means many more conversations where I find myself telling people I have just finished treatment for colon cancer—inevitably leading to them saying something like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t be sorry—I’m not. It’s the best worst thing that ever happened to me,” I reply.
This prompts an immediate nod of understanding, and an acknowledgement of how much more perspective I must now have.
Perspective is certainly part of it—but abstract "life or death perspective" is not as powerful as you might think.
Had it been, I suspect that I would not have made a decision, now almost four years ago, to continue working full-time as one even after another oncologist told me I had a year or two to live. At the time, I told myself that I would make a different decision if I recurred—but then, I didn’t.
I worked full-time until I could physically no longer manage it. And even then, I continued to work to the absolute boundaries of my capacity—it was Covid, work was crazy, we were down people, and for several months I found myself living a life that allowed me to get treatment, work, eat and sleep – in that order. I didn’t work out, I didn’t write, I didn’t cook.
Today, I find myself wondering why I did that.
I remember several months after my diagnosis, breaking down after a guided meditation at a leadership offsite, admitting that I had been leaning into work in part because it was what I knew best how to do; I didn’t yet feel nearly as confident as a wife or a parent—and I was scared to death about what my cancer might mean for them.
A friend and former colleague asked today if I held onto my job so tightly, because it gave me once last place where I could continue to nurture and be a caretaker, whereas everywhere else I was the caretake-ee. She pointed out that work was one last place where I could remain in control as I lost it over the rest of my life—and I made a good run at it.
It was not easy.
Today, on video calls, I mostly keep my camera on even when nobody else does—because back then, my closest colleagues knew that when my camera was off, I was either in the bathroom or overcome with fatigue. For every 20 minutes I could pay attention, I would have to nap for 10. I stopped announcing when I needed a bio break, because over the course of an hour I might need five.
Finally starting to understand why I did that is at last giving me the perspective that I needed: not (just) the fragility of life and death, but a deeper understanding of who I am and what has been driving me.
Back then, I saw it as a positive, driven by my desire to fulfill my purpose as a caretaker and nurturer. With time, I can also how much of what has been driving me was a potent mix of ego and fear.
That perspective hasn’t all been pleasant—but it’s been a crucial part of better understanding myself, which is making it easier and easier to connect with other people. As fear and ego are stripped away, my ability to care and nurture emerges so much more easily.
And that, more than life-or-death perspective, might be the greatest gift cancer gives: an ability to meet and connect with people more immediately—a genuine curiosity for who they are and what they need, as well as what they might have to teach me. I’m finding myself more open to lessons and learning from wherever or whoever they may come. And I’m finding it easier and easier to show up authentically—because every time I’ve mustered the courage to say something difficult or ask for help—every single time—someone has reached out to me and said, “Thank goodness you went there,” and then shared their secret challenge, trusting me enough to invite me into their own vulnerability.
The more I understand myself, the better I understand others. The better I understand others, the easier it is to connect and love. The more I open myself to love, the easier it is to love myself.
And that turned out to be the perspective I really needed.