Thursday, November 14, 2013

Does Cancer Make You a Better Person?

Fernando Morales is a cool kid. He's a now 18-year old kid who was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma in 2011.

We featured his story on the Dana-Farber blog  more than a year ago as part of pediatric cancer awareness month, and then this past August, he appeared in the NESN/WEEI JImmy Fund Radiothon.  In the clip, he says with full assuredness that cancer's "brought out the best in me" 

I first saw that clip as part of this video  (Fernando is at about 1:40)  back in September and that has stayed in my head.

Cancer brought out the best in me.

Can I say the same? 

For the last week or so I've been mentally writing a post that I was preparing to call: 10 Ways Cancer's Made Me a Better Person. As I wrestled with that list, the idea  migrated to Five Ways Cancer's Made Me a Better Person. That then  devolved to the current question: Has Cancer Made Me a Better Person?  

Has it?

While I've never heard anyone say they were glad they were diagnosed with cancer, I've heard patients express sentiments similar to Fernando's. The underlying theme is the oft-repeated cliche: Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. People talk about how they are stronger, more grateful, more aware, more thankful, even calmer in spite of the anxiety that cancer can provoke. 

But a better person?  Hard to say. Cancer has made me better at my job; I came back to my role at Dana-Farber with a better understanding of what and how to talk about cancer. But at the same time, it's made me more intolerant of people I work with who don't give their full effort. Is that growing intolerance due to cancer, too,  or am I just getting older? 

When I was going through chemo, every fourth week, I was tired and irritable -- probably hard to convince my family that I was a better person for those six months. Still, there's something nagging at my conscience that makes me feel like I'm wiser, more aware, more grateful. Do I live every moment to the fullest? Nah. Do I still get irritated at petty things? Yep. Am I the best evolution of myself? Not yet.

But in the end, what cancer's made me do is think, and write --  which for me is often one and the same. I've realized a while ago that writing for me is often how I think best. It -- writing, not cancer -- is a journey for me into self-awareness, almost a meditative state. And cancer's taken me deeper and more often into that place of self-awareness because it's made me write more often.  Part of why I wrestle with the notion of whether cancer's made me a better person is that by making that claim, I would also need to cede to the notion that cancer has fundamentally changed me -- that I'm not the person that I was two and a half years ago. 

I don't know that I want to give cancer that much of a stake in me.  

As Fernando says in his clip, you are what you are. Cancer doesn't change that. It only amplifies it. Hopefully, the parts that it's amplified for me are the good ones.