It Took Cancer to Teach Me Self-Compassion

One thing I’ve had trouble with is expressing self-compassion. When you’re a driven perfectionist it’s easy to believe that “giving yourself a break” is tantamount to “going soft” and “losing your edge”.

I couldn’t forgive myself when I felt that I’d failed. And guess what, getting cancer made me feel like a failure. I had tried to live the healthiest adult live I could, given the sometimes-limited resources I had, often denying myself what others called “pleasures” or “indulgences”.

I’ve lived most of my life feeling like I had to constantly push myself…and that I was never good enough.

The fact that I was convinced that I shouldn’t have gotten cancer was a recurring theme early on in this blog–I was convinced that I must have done something wrong, even when I tried so hard to do my best.

I was also ashamed. Cancer, I felt, opened my life up to judgment by others.

Getting myself out of that funk took serious work. It meant rewiring my brain and allowing in the same kindness and compassion for myself that I allowed for others. At the same time, I reminded myself of a quote by author and humor columnist Dave Barry: “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” I prefer to interpret Barry’s words in this way: I cannot be genuinely kind and non-judgmental to others until I’ve learned to be so to myself.

Cancer gave me perspective to see how much I needed compassion from myself.

But how do you do that when you’ve spent your life pushing yourself, not accepting excuses? It wasn’t until I hit the lowest low that I ever experienced that I learned to dip into unadulterated compassion for myself. I imagined who I was as a chemo patient–skinny, bald, dehydrated, vulnerable, frightened. And suddenly felt it: that overwhelming desire to wrap my arms around that version of me and protect it.

And while that was “cancer me”, I realized that same version of me was the scared person inside that I had always bullied with perfectionism and accusations of not being good enough. This was who I really was, in need of and deserving of gentle holding.

It took a life threatening illness to make me realize that I deserved kindness and compassion. I believe that you are deserving of the same. Do something today to prove it to yourself.

Just Show Up

The thing about cancer is that the news hits you hard at once.

And it’s not like you get time to get used to it, because the diagnosis is LOADED. All those scary things that you’ve ever associated with the “big C” rush at you and there’s no real way to protect yourself.

It would be terrifying for anyone, but those of us currently in mid-life grew up at a time when cancer treatment was not as refined or targeted as it is now: visions abound of hospital beds, bald heads, bodies wasting away, vomiting, hopelessness. Most cancers were frequently fatal and diagnosis was the beginning of the end.

Everyone’s pushing you to fight, fight, fight. It sounds like the right thing to say, but it can feel exhausting.

As we’re trying to process what this all means for us, for our future and for our families, others try to prop us up with cheers of, “Be a badass!” “Stay strong!” “You’ll beat this!” “You’re a fighter!”

So between juggling the cancer news and the “hang tough” messages from those around us, everything gets overwhelming. Our oncologist lays out a treatment plan and suddenly we need to learn a different language. Tumor types, chemo drugs, clinical terms, side effects.

I distinctly remember wanting to hide under my bed and wait for it to go away. There was so much I needed to do and I didn’t know how to get through it all. It seemed like an immense amount of work for one person.

And then it hit me. All I needed to do was show up.

I put the gloves away and realized I didn’t need to fight anything. I needed self-compassion.

I didn’t need to be the warrior that everyone was pushing me to be. The mere fact that I was going to my appointments on my scheduled day was enough. I wasn’t going to win a prize for being the best “infusee” or for absorbing the most radiation the fastest.

I didn’t have to fight. All I needed to do was endure and allow. To accept what was going on and move through it. And to breathe.

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I brought my office work with me to my first infusion. I was going to be there for at least 5 hours so I figured I should use the time “wisely”. I fired up my laptop but soon the Benadryl that I was given to prevent adverse reactions kicked in and brought on drowsiness.

Suffice it to say I might have answered an email here or there, but did little else. The same thing happened during the next infusion, and the one after that. Eventually I realized that the wisest way I could spend my time was by giving myself permission to rest and ride out the treatments.

When infusion day rolled around, I learned to put aside my work duties and family responsibilities, and simply be. It was such an uncomplicated concept, the benefits of which rippled out beyond my treatment. Why did it take cancer to teach me that?