Since my kids were little, we’d back them up against the wall, ask them to stand straight and tall, and make a little line to mark their height. Today, they can stand at the same wall and see physical evidence of how much they’ve grown.
It’s much harder for us adults to see evidence of how much we’ve grown. But I got the chance this week.
Because this week I learned I have cancer.
It’s thyroid cancer, and I’m having surgery later this week to remove the gland. One dose of radiation later, and, as my surgeon chirpily said, “you’ll be cured of cancer by December 30th.”
The C-word is a toughie for so many of us. Cancer’s got a ton of “dirty pain” associated with it. Ever heard the phrase “dirty pain”? Dr. Steven Hayes, a noted psychologist, coined the term in his development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as a counterpoint to “clean pain”.
Clean pain is the pain that naturally flows from an action or situation. You stub your toe, it hurts. You say, “Ouch.” That’s clean pain. Dirty pain is the story you tell about what happened. Like, “Geez, I am always so clumsy! What a jerk! I can’t believe I stubbed my toe! What an idiot!”
So here’s how I know I’ve changed. There was a time when a cancer diagnosis would have prompted me to take to my bed. I would have been overwhelmed, obsessive, swamped, anxious, fearful, and cranky. I wouldn’t have been able to listen to my doctors for the whirring sound of panic in my ears. I would have eaten a gallon of chocolate fudge brownie daily to soothe my mind, or treated myself to something “nice” (and stupidly expensive) at the mall.
I would probably watch “Beaches” eight times. In a row. Kleenex stock prices would soar.
I would have told myself really uplifting things like, “you brought this on by doing something wrong”, “of course you’re a loser, you got cancer”, “see, nothing good ever happens to you,” and, the whopper, “you are going to die and leave your children motherless and no one will even care.”
Plenty of stories. Stories that serve only one purpose — to extend the dirty pain, promote suffering, and keep us one-down, a victim to circumstance.
But how I took this cancer diagnosis surprised me. The diagnosis came with absolutely no story. Well, just a little story. And here it is:
I am a woman who found a lump. I had my doctor look at it. Tests were run. It’s cancer. It’s coming out.
Sure, there may be some pain after the surgery and I’ll let that be whatever it is. Right now, I’m fine. And so, I’m going to be fine until something hurts and then I’ll say “Ouch”. What’s the point of zooming ahead and feeling next week’s pain today? That will only give me two weeks of pain when I really only have to — maybe — do one.
OK, I’ll admit it, I’m slightly amazed at my own response. But it makes sense. After all the years of work and study and practice, I have arrived at a place where I can be clear and have pretty clean pain around this whole situation. It’s a rather welcome validation of the hard changes I knew I needed to make in my life. I have actually done what I set out to do. Ain’t that something?
Yep, I look at my own personal growth chart and like what I see — I’m standing tall, back up to the wall, clear and aware of exactly how much I’ve grown. Who knew having cancer could feel so good?