I don’t usually write about my experiences with Multiple Myeloma and its treatment on this site. Most often, I post those kinds of updates and reflections on my CaringBridge site. Recently, though, I had the opportunity to speak with a blood cancer support group about my journey, and that conversation coincided with my 62nd birthday, my fifth year of living with this illness, and my recent decision that I have to “retire” from Mars Hill University. My reflections–some of which I’ll share in two or three posts here–are, I think, about more than cancer. I hope you’ll find something helpful in them.
Because this illness has torn at my heart, and not just my body, I am more vulnerable than I’ve ever been. I notice and feel more keenly the struggles which other people endure and the burdens they carry. I’ve ached for gentleness and tenderness, for myself and for everyone. I cry—and laugh—more often and more freely. I take life more urgently and myself less seriously. My pace is slowing. My goals are more modest. My joys have intensified. My grief grows, along with my hope. I spend time thinking about what kind of difference I might have made in the world and about what I want to do with my remaining time and energy.
These days, I’m more focused on cancer’s influence on my sense of self than I am on its impact on my body. It’s not that my physical condition and treatment don’t matter; they obviously and certainly do. I want the treatments I receive to be effective. I do what I can to cooperate with them: I track the results of lab tests, especially the ones that measure the intensity of myeloma’s activity in my blood and bone marrow. I try to eat well, rest enough, and remain active. I pay attention to news about myeloma drugs that are under development.
There are limits, though, to what I can do to affect the outcomes of treatment. The chemicals will or won’t tame the myeloma. My kidneys will or won’t continue to function healthily. My bones will or won’t grow more brittle and fragile. I will or won’t have decisions to make about surgery or radiation or dialysis. Regardless of how effective treatment is, I will die.
I have more freedom and responsibility—more choices and agency—about what happens to my sense of self. I’ve wanted my journey with cancer to be a pilgrimage of transformation. Early on, I resolved not to squander this experience, to be a good steward of it, to learn from it, and to grow through it. Cancer is not, on its own, transformative. The disease is bent on my destruction. My responses to cancer, my way of dealing with it, are what hold transforming possibilities.
I return, again and again, to the well-known and indispensable wisdom which Victor Frankl mined from his experience in a Nazi prison camp: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Cancer takes a great deal away from me, but I’m left with the ability to choose how I will respond to the losses it exacts from me. Without my consent or cooperation, Multiple Myeloma can diminish and damage my physical health. I can choose, however, not to allow it to demean my humanity or distort my truest identity. I don’t want merely to survive cancer. Whatever the course of my illness, whether I live ten more years or ten more months, I want to live mindfully, gratefully, and joyfully. I’m more concerned about the meaning of my life than its length—about its direction more than its duration