Cancer, “Why Me?” and Mustard Seeds: The Path to Acceptance

At some point in a cancer patient’s life, there are certain questions that tend to come up. The most likely one of these is why we were singled out to have such a serious calamity befall us.

I went through a long period of this. I mean, loooong. The early posts of this blog are filled with agonized questions about why cancer hit me even when, by all accounts, it shouldn’t have. I posted about not having risk factors and blah blah blah. I kept going around and around and around on this, stuck on a hamster wheel that wouldn’t stop.

I clung to the same ride, unhappy but not wanting to get off.

Allow me to stress: cancer is a serious illness. That is not to be taken lightly. Most of us, regardless of lifestyle, experience profound shock with our cancer diagnosis. It may seem that life is cruel and unfair (well, it is) and that we didn’t deserve to get cancer (well, we didn’t).

I struggled with anger and frustration for years. It’s both embarrassing and freeing to admit that.

Acceptance is a process. I thought I’d accepted my situation a couple of years ago, but in retrospect, I hadn’t. Some days I felt holy and zen-like, floating on my own little cloud, but it was a sham. I’d have glimpses of acceptance and then a wave of anger and resentment would wash over me and I’d be pissed off for another week.

I thought God hated me. A purportedly loving and merciful being allowed this to happen. It was hard to not think of cancer as a blow against my value as a person because of how I interpreted my situation.

It wasn’t until I stepped outside the confines of that type of thinking that I gained a different perspective. I posted about re-writing my life (basically, viewing the same experiences through a different, more positive lens) which provided a glimpse of another way to assess what had happened. And when I heard the retelling of an ancient Buddhist tale I finally understood what it meant.

Never seen mustard seeds? Here they are. Kisa, however, came up empty-handed.

What was that tale? It was “Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed”. In brief, Kisa Gotami’s young son dies and she is so distraught–not understanding why she would deserve such a painful experience–that she goes to the Buddha in hopes that he can bring the son back from the dead.

The Buddha agrees to revive her son if she can bring him mustard seeds from households where no one has died. Of course, she cannot because death touches all living creatures. She is comforted by the realization that her sorrow is shared and understood by everyone in the community and she finds acceptance of her loss .

Another way of looking at this is that we all suffer. For me, it’s a reminder that while a cancer diagnosis is life-threatening, there are few (if any) humans on this Earth who have not experienced some form of loss or grief at some point in their lives. Yes, some of us bear a far greater burden than others–grave inequities exist. But they also bring profound opportunities for growth.

And while I (and I expect most cancer patients/survivors) would have preferred to experience this personal growth through means other than cancer, being able to be here in this moment, having turned the corner, is one of the most beautiful gifts I could ever receive.

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Two points need to be made here:

Point #1: Burdens are distributed unequally. Socioeconomic, racial and other disparities further tip the scales, making outcomes from a disease like cancer even worse. As a society, we haven’t come close to rebalancing this. Acceptance is easier for some than for others; no one has a right to preach to anyone else.

Point #2: It’s been over five years since my initial cancer diagnosis, and even longer that I’ve been worrying about it. As I mentioned above, it took a LONG time to get to this point of acceptance. Knowing this, I would never rush a new cancer patient to get here. Acceptance must come organically, and yes, sometimes never does. Cancer breaks hearts and no one experiences it in the same way. Be patient.

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.