February 12, 2017 Hey my people,
The place where you grew up has a big effect on how you experience cancer. That’s why I’m glad I’m from Louisiana. You may have heard our motto, Laissez les bon temps rouler—“Let the good times roll.” We are trained from the cradle to believe that life is here for us to enjoy. We don’t really get that taciturn New England vibe. Stretching our supplies and shoveling snow? No, thank you!
Self-mortification is not our style in Louisiana. Our exports include crawfish etouffee, Zydeco music, and both Manning brothers. You can say that steel and wheat and the stock market are more important. That leads me to believe nobody has ever taken you for café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde.
The Cajuns I grew up with taught me that suffering is okay, within limits. In South Louisiana, all my friends went to church on Ash Wednesday and temporarily “gave up” some habit or other for the month of Lent. And how did we begin? We threw a party!
Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday,” is supposed to be such a blowout that Lent comes as a nice rest. Mardi Gras is when you celebrate everything that brings you joy, the high-toned and the lowdown, and give thanks for it all.
At some point in our ongoing reaction to a cancer diagnosis, most of us at least dip into the Mardi Gras frame of mind. We may throw a “Mardi Gras” party before we start cancer treatment. We understand the cycle of surgery/chemo/radiation as a season of suffering that we have to pass through so we can come back to life.
But when we come back, what do we want life to be? That’s where the Louisiana way can teach us something. On the bayou, we don’t think of happiness as something we earn. It’s our right, just like dancing the two-step on Saturday night.
The cancer voyage gives us a priceless chance to start over and start happier. We can drop some expectations on the way. We can loosen up, admit more to ourselves about what we really want and need.
I feel sorry for my cancer buddies who come from severe backgrounds where it’s all about hard work and the value of a dollar. I hear them talk about picking up life after treatment like it’s a to-do list.
They always seem to start with accusing themselves: “What did I do wrong to get cancer?” Then they go right to the penalty phase: “I will never misbehave again!”
From the medical viewpoint, of course we want to trace our case histories. We want to understand what happened inside us and how to discourage recurrence.
But “what did I do wrong to get cancer?” That’s not science. That’s our fear talking, and we don’t answer to our fear. Besides, nobody ever based a vision for the future on “I will never take another risk.”
What do you want out of your new life? That’s a bold question—or it ought to be. For us cancer voyagers, I put it another way: What’s your Well Again? What do you love most? What do you want more of? That’s what you and cancer are arguing about, and I hope it’s not whether you filed your taxes on time.
Getting well after cancer, that’s about taking your tamoxifen. Getting Well Again beyond cancer is about more than medicine: It’s about reactivating all those parts of life we don’t bring to the doctor.
If you do a double shot of wheat grass, that’s one way to be Well Again. If you top it off with a screening of “Double Indemnity” and a double shot of Glenfiddich, that could be even better. What’s your Well Again? It’s up to you.
On your graduation day from cancer treatment, your caregivers will tell you to go out and live life to the fullest. If you’re from one of those dutiful places on the map, this may cause you some anxiety. That’s okay. Start small. Leave the top off the toothpaste.
Sleep late. See a movie with subtitles. Play “Chopsticks.” Don’t wait, that’s the main thing.
This is life, people! Mardi Gras is just around the corner. Let the good times roll.
I’d love to hear your stories about living on beyond cancer. Please email me here, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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