About five years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. For two years I received all the standard advised treatments at Stony Brook University Hospital, but I have an aggressive form that became metastatic three years ago. My status was upgraded to Stage 4 — considered incurable by the medical community. Since then, I have been through a number of challenging treatments, both medical and alternative. But more significantly, cancer has challenged me to change — change my perspective, my outlook, my understanding of the world. I live each day with the deepest gratitude not just for my own life but for all the lives around me.
If you’ve been around a cancer patient or have had cancer yourself, you may have heard a lot about “what not to say to a cancer patient.” I have heard every comment imaginable at this point, but none rubbed me the wrong way. Rather, I was grateful for the expression of that human desire to reach out in some way to another person, one whose suffering is apparent, and to offer support, love, compassion, understanding, advice or just plain fellowship.
Over the years I have observed a curious phenomenon. Each time someone discovers I have cancer (sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not, depending on treatments), they don’t just try to “meet me halfway.” Instead, they instantly become completely generous, loving and open to me. This is a fine instinct — to feel, selflessly for another’s plight. My question is this: Since every human suffers in some way, why would we not extend our compassionate selves to everyone we meet? And I do mean everyone. Why should it require cancer, or death, or some obvious hardship, to reach out unabashedly to another human?
I was brought up by atheists and became a Christian much later in life, as an adult. I study the Bible and foster deep faith in its teachings. I adhere to the belief that God calls us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet. My personal understanding of this call is literal. That said, I believe that no matter what our faith or individual differences, we are all continuously challenged by God to see and acknowledge and celebrate the human spirit in each individual we encounter, regardless of their or our circumstances. Some of us may appear more obviously in need of compassion, but the fact is that we all need each other, and in the same ways. No one can thrive without love. Learning to be open to another person and genuinely caring about others, whether they appear to need it or not, opens the door to healing for everyone.
When I sense hostility, anger, sadness, frustration in another, I try to help by giving them a gift from the heart. This could be as simple as asking how their day is going, or commenting on how challenging their job must be at times, or complimenting them on a pretty blouse or earrings. I’m also a big believer in hugs — even for people I hardly know!
Next time you find yourself critical, withholding, judgmental (all outward manifestations of your own personal fears, incidentally), try seeing things in a new way. The person before you may struggle with challenges you could never imagine. Why reserve your empathy only for those who are obviously suffering? Kindness, a manifestation of love, is limitless and, like love, it expands infinitely to accommodate every situation. You will find compassion to be a huge tool for melting barriers, forging new friendships and personal growth. The person you so passionately fought with yesterday may very well become the fast friend who teaches you the most today.
Thank you again and again to the countless friends and acquaintances who have given me so much love. Please know that your kindness has made a real difference in my life!
The author has been a Greenport resident for nearly 25 years.