By Gwen Darien
By Gwen Darien
I was sitting on the couch this Labor Day, vaguely bored, but still content, regretting the end of a wonderful summer of great movies, amazing food and adventurous travel. (The highlight was a two-week vacation in China.) As usual, I was busy and fulfilled with work, but the atmosphere was tempered by the mellow summer pace. Despite my idleness, I was also thrilled that fall was about to begin, the leisure of the summer to be replaced by the stimulation and activity of autumn.
This lazy daydreaming, I know, is not what the world expects of me, a cancer survivor. For the first few years after I was diagnosed, people would routinely instruct me, “You should savor and cherish every day.” Aside from having an aversion to such clichés, I thought, What nonsense! It’s impossible to always experience life at the same level of happiness and intensity. Perhaps, I shouldn’t ever be bored; I should relish every moment. I should get off the couch and take a walk or cook a healthy meal. But, for me, these are unrealistic expectations.
We can’t deny that society imposes a specific set of “shoulds” on cancer survivors, which many of us accept. We should cherish time. We should eat better and exercise. We should stay away from people and situations that don’t make us happy. But perhaps a more achievable goal is to put “shoulds” into a realistic context. Yes, I should lose five pounds, but eating out and cooking are a great pleasure for me—and I eat healthfully. Exercise more? I hated it before cancer and haven’t changed my mind now, but I really intend to try. Avoid overextending myself personally and professionally to reduce stress? Well, I’m very susceptible to real or perceived obligations (and like most people, love to be asked to participate, organize and contribute), but I’m getting better at prioritizing how I spend my time.
Why do we feel guilty about not fulfilling these societal expectations? It’s difficult to accept that we may not always exhibit the most healthful behavior or we may not make all of the lifestyle changes that could potentially improve our health. For many cancer survivors, the all-too-common question, “What do you think you did to get your cancer?” stings. That’s because, despite knowing that cancer isn’t our fault, we can’t always erase the specter of our possible role. We can’t quiet all of the internal questions about our complicity in our diagnosis.
Does spending the day on the couch—reading, thinking, daydreaming—mean that we aren’t doing everything we can to appreciate, improve and hold on to the time we have? Or, instead, are we simply experiencing time once again as it should be, with its uneven, comforting rhythms?
For me, the best outcome after a cancer diagnosis is a life that integrates some of the lessons learned from surviving a life-threatening disease, tempered by realistic self-expectations. It’s a life that lets me be excited, bored, engaged and indulgent—with just the appropriate amount of guilt, and no more.