"Cancer saved my life"

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by Deborah Grassman

By most anyone’s definition John was a failure. He had been an alcoholic since age 13. Rather than feel painful experiences, John numbed distressing emotions with alcohol. Because of his drinking habits, he had not achieved much success in his career or his relationships. In fact, he had a 6-year-old son he had not even met. When John was 37 years old, he lost his health. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer. His father and grandfather had also died of the disease at young ages. John plunged into despair. However, his poor health served as the wake-up call he needed to get his life on track. 

 The first thing John did was stop drinking. Sober and confronting a life-threatening illness, he saw things anew, and he opened up to his bleak and tumultuous feelings. His priorities shifted. He contacted his son’s mother, Donna, and made arrangements to meet his son, Bailey. John and Donna had been in love, and they found their feelings were still the same when they reunited. A few months later, they decided to marry. John moved his new family to Florida, so he could be near the VA hospital where he received his chemotherapy treatments.

 I met John on one of his numerous readmissions to the hospital for complications from his illness. “Cancer saved my life,” he told me. He had a new-found innocence. He was no longer afraid to encounter distressing feelings, so he had no need to numb them with alcohol. His new world looked very different. Not only did he now have a wife and son to share his life, but also he formed stronger bonds with his widowed mother and his four sisters. He also became an active member of our cancer support group, helping other patients “save their lives.” 

 John also had moments of despair and loneliness. He told me about a recurring nightmare he’d been having. “This grotesque-looking travel agent keeps asking me what I want. I keep dodging her, but she always manages to find me. I wake up trembling.”

 I often use imagery from dreams to help people understand experiences they may be avoiding. “Next time you should ask the travel agent what she wants,” I told him. I proposed that he try to meet her while he was awake, and I was with him. “Close your eyes,” I said quietly. “Bring her image to your mind.” When he’d done that, I suggested that he tell her that the next time she came, he was going to ask her what she wanted. 

 John sat quietly for a few moments before opening his eyes and nodding. “If you don’t ask her in the dream,” I said, “ask her as soon as you wake up. Stay in that twilight sleep of a relaxed frame of mind and ask her what she wants. See what impressions come to your mind.” 

 A few weeks later, John came to tell me the travel agent had visited him in the night. 

 “What’d she tell you?” I asked, fascinated. I should have been prepared for his answer, but I wasn’t.

 “She said she wanted to help me get ready for my trip. She wanted me to be comfortable. She asked what I needed.”

 My heart sank as I realized that his “trip” was his own death. “How do you feel about what she told you?” I asked him warily.

 “Good. I’d never thought of her coming to help me. I only thought she was coming to take something away. Now I know I don’t need to be afraid of her.”

 My disappointment with my own realization that John would soon be facing death turned into hope as we talked about what he needed to get ready for his “trip,” focusing on end-of-life strategies that could successfully prepare him. Understandably, most of John’s concerns focused on preparing his now 8-year-old son for his death. He didn’t want Bailey to repeat his own mistakes. He was especially hopeful that he could provide some guidance for Bailey’s sexual maturity. “That’s when a boy really needs his father,” John said. He wanted to compress a lifetime of fatherhood into their remaining months together. 

 John made a videotape teaching Bailey how to shave and tie a tie, along with other fatherly advices he would not be able to provide in person. I also helped him write six letters that Donna was to give their son at milestones in Bailey’s life. 

These are some excerpts from each letter:

Dear Bailey, Surprise! — a voice from your past (and present and future). You have to remember not to go anywhere until your homework is done. Also, do the extra credit because it’s like that magic card in the pocket you can redeem if the dog eats your homework. I hope you’ll always learn that others can take a lot of things away from you, but they can’t take away your education. I want you to remember not to compare yourself to others, but to do your best. Remember to pick good classes that will keep you interested. Consider science club. You always said you liked space. Go to the planetarium. Ask for a tutor if you need one. Find people who will help you. Lots of people want you to excel. Want that for yourself. Schools are wild now. You will have many temptations. Be strong enough to resist the temptation so you don’t betray yourself or undermine your goals. I want you to read this letter at the start of each school year from now on.

 Dear Bailey, You’re probably getting taller now and getting some hair on your body. Your penis may be growing, although it may not be as big as you want. Don’t let anyone tease you about it. I remember taking a shower with a bunch of boys and trying to pull on mine to make it look longer. Now, I realize I need not compare myself with anyone else. I know you’re not kissing girls yet, but you prepare by learning how to shave without razor stubble. Girls don’t like razor stubble. You have to respect girls. Bailey, love is not a game. Sex is not a game. God gave sex and love as a gift of pleasure. If you’re going to start seeing a girl seriously, ask to meet her parents. That’s a courtesy you should provide. Your virginity is a gift, and it’s not going to go away unless you give it away. My advice to you is to wait for sex and don’t give your love to just anyone. That would be irresponsible. At least wait until you are in college, even better until you marry. Sex can change everything. There are lots of other ways to sexually express yourself than intercourse. You are the one who will suffer the consequences of poor sexual choices. So be prepared for the consequences if you make poor choices.

 Dear Bailey, I’m going to be watching over you. If you try to smoke, I’ll be saying “No! No! No!” in your ear. Smoking is one thing that will keep you from blowing out your candles. If you get a car, I hope you will always remember it’s a privilege. A policeman or court can take that privilege away. So follow the rules, including the golden rule. You see, when you have a car, you have a lot of mature decisions to make.

 Dear Bailey, I hope this marriage is not a spur of the moment decision and you’ve put a lot of thought into it. A bad marriage is hard to deal with. Don’t do it if you’re not prepared to do it for the rest of your life. Good communication skills are important. Talk about the little things like, “Would you ever consider living in Alaska?” Make sure you can compromise on issues. Be like the reed that can Baileyd with the winds. I wish you a long and happy marriage with lots of children. Give my love and hello to your bride-to-be. Anytime you need me, if God will let me interfere, I’ll be there. I wish you both all the happiness life has to offer.

 Dear Bailey, Congratulations! I hope and pray your baby is healthy and well and that you understand the miracle you’ve been handed and the responsibility you are about to undertake. If there are potholes in the road, or if the child needs special care, I send even more prayers for healing your way. I hope you are happy parents because then you’ll raise happy children. I hope your children bring you as much joy as you have brought me during these few years we had together. You can’t see me, but I’m not far away. If there are any trials with your kids, I’ll pray to God that you find the help you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

 Dear Bailey, This is the last letter you will receive from me. I haven’t had the wit of Johnny Carson or the love of Mother Teresa, but I do pray. I pray that in the place where there is extra love, that you will use it to shine a light on someone in the dark today who has forgotten that God is in their heart. I pray for people who want help. Since I first met you, Bailey, you told me “When I grow up, I want to help people who are in trouble.” I hope you have continued to keep that mission, and if you haven’t, that you might reconsider it now. It will bring much peace, meaning, and fulfillment to your life.

After John’s Death

John died a few weeks after these letters were written. I attended his memorial service. Chaplain Dan invited people to speak. As others shared their thoughts, I thought carefully about the many lessons John had taught me. Then, I shared my musings with his family: “If John had died three years ago, he would have just sort of fallen off the face of this earth. Many probably would have written him off as an alcoholic who got lost in his unused life. However, John’s life changed these last three years. He used his loss of health as a means to wake up to the joys and despairs in his life. As a result, John learned how to love, and once he experienced love, his world changed and our world changed. He redeemed the mess he had created in his life. John always said, ‘Cancer saved my life,’ but I think what really saved his life was courage. John used cancer to summon courage so he could heal his brokenness. John didn’t heal his life in spite of his cancer, he healed his life because of his cancer. Everyone here today bears witness to the hero that John became. He achieved the destiny you all knew that he was born to fulfill. May we each leave here letting John’s example influence our own lives. May we each summon the courage to confront our own wounds so they can be used as sources of healing for ourselves and others. May we each change in the ways that we need so that we can fulfill our own destiny.”

 I still think about John. Had it not been for cancer, there is little doubt that John would still be living the life of a desperate man. Had he not accessed his interior hero, there is little doubt that he would have also died a desperate man.

 I also think about Bailey. I think about the hole in his heart that is healed each time he reads another letter from his father. I also think about the hole in Bailey’s heart that would still be there today if his father hadn’t written those letters.

Unmourned losses and unforgiven guilt/shame had perpetuated John’s Soul Injury. Self-compassionately grieving and forgiving had restored it. John uncovered his real self.

You can read other stories like John's in Deborah Grassman's book, The Hero Within: Redeeming the Destiny We Were Born to Fulfill.

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