It’s rare that we as individuals hold the power to change the trajectory of somebody’s day just by sharing a piece of advice or kind words. Quite frankly, it’s these opportunities that us cancer survivors should feel the privilege to be able to experience, especially after all that we go through. I’ve only had the chance to experience this opportunity a handful of times throughout the past two years.
As a donor care specialist for another non-profit, I spent my Christmas Eve at work wrapping up donor enquiries. The majority of our team was already out for the holidays, but we found ourselves switching desks all day taking calls from different phones. As a result, I was a little on edge, trying to get settled in the morning but just as excited for my Italian Christmas dinner not eight hours away. Turns out, it was a blessing that I worked that day.
“I’m warning you, I’m going to start crying.”
The first call I received that morning instantly snapped me out of my funk. It was an individual looking to donate—a call I’ve taken many times prior—however, this young lady was different. I responded with my heart.
“Please, take your time with me. You have all my attention and I want to help.”
It was what I was truly feeling. I had an inkling that I knew why this caller was crying, but I wasn’t prepared to what extent.
We normally ask donors if their donation is in memory or in honour of anyone. In this case, the caller mentioned that it was in honour of herself. I offered her the option to personalize a card to send out to a friend or family member, as is customary. She requested one for her family. In the card, she described her message to me, praising her two wonderful children, her husband, and her friends for being there for her.
By the end of our conversation she was openly sobbing. I could tell that this woman was honouring herself as a cancer thriver, and she was clearly dealing with complex emotions at a stressful time of year. I didn’t ask her much about her diagnosis or stage; it didn’t really matter in regards to what I said before I let her go.
“Have a wonderful rest of your day, but I want you to know, I am a cancer survivor myself. I understand how tough it can be to stay strong around the holidays, but try and put a smile on your face as you spend this time with your family. I want you to know I’ll have you in my thoughts throughout this time, and wish you well in the upcoming year.”
She was extremely grateful for my sentiments, thanked me, and we ended the call. I had to sit in peace for a minute or so before proceeding with any work. It was powerful stuff, and it put my slightly stressful morning into perspective.
I was given a clean bill of health at the conclusion of my cancer treatment in January 2017. Ever since then, it’s been rare that I’ve been placed in the position to relate so closely to individuals in my everyday life who are so openly vulnerable and could use a simple bit of hope. This is not due to lack of struggle of everyone around us in society. It’s just that it’s not often that people wear their heart on their sleeve and expose what they may be going through long enough for us to step in and help them with it.
We all have gone through—or currently deal with—difficulties in early treatment, maintenance, or survivorship phases of our cancer experiences. Although we usually find routine, one day could bring about symptoms of loneliness, and our loved ones may not always have a simple answer to drag us out of a slump. As individuals living with, through, or beyond cancer, I think we should feel proud to be in the presence of someone who may open themselves up for a split second about their difficulties. Vulnerability should not be considered taboo or unwelcome. In fact, as individuals who have felt the presence of cancer, we should celebrate vulnerability in others and greet it with open arms. If my mom or dad weren’t around motivating me to get up and fight every day and listening to me scream and rant, or if my friends didn’t continue to invite me to get togethers and act like I was still just as much a part of the group as always, I genuinely don’t know if I would have had the strength to make it through two years of treatment.
Cancer has made me increasingly more empathetic every day, and it certainly has made me more self-aware. That in turn has blessed me with the ability to study how I’ve been able to persevere and focus on the good throughout my battle with the steroids, the oral chemo, and the fatigue. I try to cultivate this experience into positive words of affirmation, or advice, or love to my friends and peers around me who allow themselves a moment of openness.
Vulnerability is sexy. Whether it’s dealing with a stressful job, a recent breakup or divorce, a mental or physical battle with an illness, we all go through something. Cancer thrivers feel this deep in their souls, and our experience teaches us that sometimes, a small glimmer of positivity can set the tone for the rest of the day, week, or even year. It could just mean a pep talk, a phone call, or a text message. When you’re in an emotional state this could truly mean the world to someone going through it.
The new year—nay—new decade is upon us. I’ve chosen to crown it as a time for myself to pick up others in small ways. Now let me be clear: I don’t claim to be an all divine power that has the answer to every complex relationship or career or family related struggle that weaves its way through our lives. However, I do lend an open ear to whoever is willing to talk, and I often feel a great sense of pride and reward when I know I’m making a difference in someone’s life.
You never know how comforting it could be to say, “You have all my attention.”