On Cancer and Self-Reflection

by Neal ReddySurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaSeptember 7, 2021View more posts from Neal Reddy

When I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the more common messages I received was that I would gain a new perspective or a new sense of meaning from having such a jarring experience. While the idea I would become a better person after having cancer made sense and was somewhat inspiring, it also was another extra source of pressure. I was already self-conscious as a teenager approaching adulthood. The implicit expectations of personal growth did the opposite of consoling me.

Perhaps the whole idea of cancer being an experience in moral education was brought on by the fact that survival rates for Hodgkin’s lymphoma have risen to a remarkably high level. There was a very good chance that I would have a future to even think about, so I almost felt I had to start preparing for it and to capitalize on this pivotal stopgap in my life. But these changes tend to happen on their own. And cancer is not really a stopgap— the infusions, treatments, appointments and isolation make it quite busy and stressful actually.

I spent many hours thinking about myself and plunged deeper into an existential pool. In my self-reflection, I discovered and dwelled upon areas where I had gone wrong, faults with my own thinking, flaws in my way of life. My self-reflection made me become more aware of the fact that I was a little too obsessed with school, a little too closed-minded and anxious in my social life. I didn’t really have the relationships with friends and acquaintances I needed. There definitely was some truth in my thoughts, despite their harshness. However, that was not the time for me to have this epiphany.

I didn’t need to hear a psychoanalysis of myself, while getting chemotherapy and losing mounds of hair every day. I didn’t need the stress of finding some sort of new truth while I swelled with nausea and discomfort each morning. In the end, it was not the right time to investigate myself through such a philosophical and moral lens, even if I would’ve been better for it.

The fact is, I did grow after having cancer. Nonetheless, I feel like I should’ve been more patient with myself and grown on my own terms and on my own timeline. I did read some thought-provoking books during my treatment, but I think Tolstoy could have waited a year. What I needed was probably a little bit more Madden and a little more time with my dog. What’s done is done, however.

That is to say, the finitude of life will become apparent as a cancer patient even without contemplating it consciously. There’s no need to focus on this sort of heavy truth in the moment, and our language regarding cancer should reflect that.

I had thought that I would be a different person because of having cancer. Now, I feel less inclined to give cancer that credit. Like many young survivors, I’ve grown despite having cancer.

This article was featured in the September issue of the Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read other stories from the latest magazine and to check out our other issues.

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