Yesterday was the first day for a group that I’ve joined at a local community fitness center for people who have been or are living with cancer. It was a mess.
I was a mess. For the rest of the day, I was scattered. I was distracted. I was listless.
This group is part of a three-month program that includes training, exercises for flexibility and strength and general health, yoga and other alternative modalities, and supportive guided conversations. It’s a safe space. It’s an open space. And mostly I have been looking forward to it.
When I arrived, I was shown into a room and everyone was sitting around tables making conversation. It seemed clear that some people had been acquainted for some time while others of us were entirely new. At each seat was a stack of materials that weren’t specific to all that we would be learning and doing but were instead impressive resources for persons dealing with cancer. As I looked, I saw charts on calendaring various kinds of appointments, tips on dealing with side effects to chemotherapy, guidance on coordinating primary care with oncology and radiology, and much more.
And I felt out of place. I felt like it was a place for people with actual cancer.
As the leaders began, they gave us some tools and guidance for beginning to tell about ourselves and our journeys. The group is mostly women, and I heard several stories about various stages of breast cancer and various treatments. I heard a story about lung cancer. I heard a story about prostate cancer. I heard a story about leukemia. I heard stories about how chemotherapy didn’t just weaken the immune system as it killed cancer cells, but also sapped the will to be in the world and sometimes resulted in isolation. I heard stories about depression; about being so emotionally and even logistically scattered with all to be faced that action seemed unlikely or impossible; I heard about cancer markers; about physical and emotional pain; about successes and joys and hopes; about changes in familial relationships or vocations; and about goals for the future. I heard an incredibly courageous story about a woman who beat one kind of cancer before she beat another cancer only for the first cancer to return.
And then it was my turn to introduce myself. And I couldn’t even get more than a few sentences out before I couldn’t speak. Because I couldn’t stop crying. I was feeling inadequate and guilty because these intensely strong humans were all dealing with real cancer and all I was dealing with was <choosing not to use foul language here> skin cancer. And the easy non-deadly skin cancer at that.
I know I have a history. I know I have baggage. I know I have fear. I know that the “c” word can be scary to anyone no matter its location or type or stage. And I find myself going back to those early thoughts about my own fear being unreasonable. I wonder why I got the easy kind and other people got something worse. I wonder why this rips me up some days when others seem to have such intense emotional strength. I feel guilty about it, and maybe even guilty about showing up in this courageous group of people who are fighting (or have fought) for their lives. And to be really raw and honest, I felt – and still feel – embarrassed that I couldn’t hold it together in this first meeting.
I also know that I’ll continue to work through my fear. When I was a teenager, my dad taught me that emotions were natural things. He said that emotions simply existed, not good, not bad. What especially matters is how we respond. Yesterday wasn’t a great day. I was overcome with fear. And even after I stopped crying and left the meeting and got to my car and back to work, I was still scattered and listless. I couldn’t focus.
So a day later when I think about my own emotional wreck, I also think about my dad’s words. Emotions exist, not good or bad. They just are. And I can choose how to respond. Will I allow myself to be overwhelmed and overcome? Will I allow myself to be scattered, listless? Or will I be inspired by the courageous people that I have met, those who have different histories and different baggage and different diagnoses and different treatments and different emotions and different responses? In spite of a difficult day, will I still choose to radiate hope?
I think I’ll choose hope. I think I’ll work it like a muscle that grows and gets stronger the more I use it. I think that this time with a group that meets in a community fitness center is good for exactly that work. Maybe some days I’ll have a bad workout. I’m sure it won’t be easy. But I think there’s room for hope. I think there’s room for faith. I think I’m called to it.
And so I think I’ll keep at it.