What do World Series-winning Chicago Cubs players Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, and this writer, Dianne Callahan, have in common? We are all joyful survivors of lymphoma, a potentially deadly form of blood cancer. And we are not alone. Add to the list former Anaheim Ducks players Saku Koivu and Jason Blake, Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell, actor (and ballroom dancer) Mr. T, and your friends, family, and neighbors.
When you hear the word “cancer,” many thoughts crowd into your head demanding attention: bald; chemo; sick; bald; insurance; hospitals; BALD; death. Rarely does the word “joy” enter into your thoughts. But I am here to tell you this: there is joy to be found in cancer. And purpose. And even (and maybe especially) humor.
Let me tell you, men like the bald women. I’ve been through three fights with aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma and rocked my bald head each time. Put on some lipstick, go out in public, and it never fails – some guy comes sidling up, asking, “How you doin’?” I figure they’re looking to get in on the life insurance policy, right?
Once when I was home recuperating from my first stem cell transplant, I received a call from a young solicitor for Sunset magazine. “We see you’ve let your subscription lapse,” she said. “We really want you to come back to Sunset, and we’re offering a 24-month subscription for the price of one year.” When I told her I wasn’t interested in re-upping my subscription because I was recovering from cancer treatment and was simplifying my life, she came right back with a perky “Oh! Well, we have a 6-month subscription!” Funniest story of that round of cancer! You gotta laugh, right?
July 19, 2017, marks a very special day in my life – it’s my 10-year “cancerversary” (the anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with aggressive stage IV blood cancer). Since that day, I have spent many weeks in the hospital and experienced myriad forms of chemo, countless blood transfusions, two clinical trials, and two stem cell transplants. I’ve cried an ocean of tears and lifted up thousands of prayers of praise and cries for help to get me through some dark days.
When I say there is joy in cancer, I’m not pretending that cancer is easy, nor that diagnosis and treatment always result in the outcome we hope for. Cancer is hard and painful and scary and heartbreaking (and often bank-breaking, and sometimes relationship-breaking).
But something very special can happen when you go through a life-threatening illness like cancer – you can experience a phenomenon as old as humankind that is just recently getting recognition in the positive psychology literature: post-traumatic growth (PTG). Most of us are all too aware of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly as it impacts American men and women in the military. Post-traumatic growth is the potential flip side, defined as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning.”
This is where the joy of cancer comes in.
For many, like Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, PTG manifests in the heartfelt desire to help others. He created The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation in 2012 because he realized during his own battle with cancer that no matter how difficult fighting cancer was for him, it was even more difficult for his family. Rizzo believes that an individual does not battle cancer alone, but that the whole family battles it together. The mission of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation is to raise money for cancer research and provide support to children and their families battling the disease. Their motto is: “Together we can knock cancer out of the park.”
Some of us may not have the platform of a World Series champion baseball player, but we can embrace our own PTG and live in the joy of cancer nonetheless. We can choose an attitude of gratitude, and strengthen our thankfulness practice by actively looking for the silver lining in all things. We can give back to our community by participating in events like The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light The Night (www.lls.org), and raise money for new treatments and cures for blood cancers. We can humble ourselves to ask for and accept help from loving family and friends who would do anything to take this cancer away from us, but will settle for helping by doing dishes or running errands.
We can slow down and take a moment to reflect on what we want the story of our life to be – our new life and our new chance to focus on what is truly important. We can up our love game and ensure that the people we love know it and know the impact they’ve made. We can be kinder, braver, more generous, and more gracious. We can know we deserve this second chance at life by being our very best selves and making a difference somewhere, anywhere – even in our own little corner of this big, beautiful world.
I can honestly say that the last 10 years have been the best of my life – not in spite of cancer, but because of it. Cancer has brought me the very best new friends and strengthened old friendships. It has brought me to a new career as a nonprofit executive and then to a new new career as an inspirational speaker. It has brought me a spirit of love, gratitude, purpose, and lightheartedness. And, most especially, cancer has brought me joy.
Dianne Callahan is an inspirational speaker, fundraiser, and the founder of Lighthearted Life (www.lightheartedlife.org)