It’s been a long, long time since I posted on this blog. I still write, and fairly often! I’m working on putting together the whole story of how God worked in my life during my struggle with cancer, and while it’s slow going with my two little ones, it’s been therapeutic and I hope to be able to share it with you someday soon. For now, I mostly share my reflections on my Instagram account because, well, it’s just easier. I’d LOVE to connect with you there @allisonbenotafraid. You can also follow the account for my Etsy shop where I sell original photography paired with inspirational words from Scripture, Literature, and the Saints @benotafraidprints.
I’m also contributing to a new series of devotional scripture studies through Elizabeth Foss’s new project, Take Up & Read. The first 40 day study is all about the consolation of God in periods of suffering and pain, and I’m honored to have my essays featured alongside those of some amazing women I truly admire. You can learn more about us at taykeupandread.org, and follow along on Instagram @takeupandread
Anyways, today has been a day. And as I watched my sweet, sick toddler lay asleep on the floor, I started typing out some thoughts and it all became too long for an Instagram post, so here they are.
Annie just fell asleep in only her diaper curled up on the hardwood floor. She’s never done that before. What I wouldn’t of given for her to be the type to eventually fall asleep out of exhaustion when she was a baby, but she always fought sleep to the bitter end, usually only giving in while nursing, once in my arms, or next to me in bed, and she’s generally not all that different as a toddler, either.
But what seemed like teething pain yesterday, has now turned into a full-blown case of hand, foot, and mouth disease, and she has no idea how to handle the pain. And even though I know it could be worse and I know it will pass, it’s heartbreaking to see her thrash about, drooling and in tears.
When the doctor finally pried her mouth open this morning she exclaimed, “Wow! It’s chock full of mouth sores alright!” She went on to say how contagious HFM is, but assured me that none of us should get it since John Paul had it when he was a toddler and most adults don’t have to worry about it. “Unless,” she asked, “you have a bad immune system?”
I never know how to answer that. I was fortunate enough to avoid a stem cell transplant, and therefore don’t have any concrete evidence that my immune system is any worse than it had been before cancer, but then again, I seem to end up with an unusually high amount of sinus and ear infections each year, and have chronic allergies that seem worse than they ever were. Plus, I did have cancer related to the immune system, so, who knows. I mentioned this briefly to Annie’s doctor, and afterwards she smiled and said, “Oh well that’s good then! I mean, that you had the good kind of cancer!”
I’ve gotten this several times. It doesn’t usually bother me, because, after all, I did survive, and that is good. I’m acutely aware that I’m one of the lucky ones to have survived such a terrible disease, and I’m beyond grateful to be here. Actually, I feel guilty about surviving sometimes, though rationally I know I really shouldn’t. So though this comment usually annoys me a little, that’s it.
But this time, it’s stuck with me all day. Maybe it’s because I’ve slept with a large toddler on my lap for the past three nights and I’m exhausted. Or, maybe it’s because I’ve been struggling with anxiety ever since the shooting in Alexandria (where we live) involving men who work in the same field as my husband occurred. Just this morning, I had to coax myself to let John Paul go to camp, because I was so worried something terrible would happen to him during the three hours he was there (this is not completely new for me as I struggled with depression and anxiety after treatment, but it’s not normal for me anymore either, thank God.)
Either way, the doctor’s comment has been eating away at me, and an hour ago, as I watched Annie cry out in pain as she struggled to swallow despite her mouth full of sores, it brought me to tears. I hate to see her suffer, and I know so acutely what this particular pain feels like. I suffered through several rounds of chemo that resulted in incredible mouth sores, the worst batch culminating in an infection and hospital stay. It got so bad that they gave me a small bowl to spit into, because trying to swallow my own saliva hurt more than anything I’d ever felt before and brought me to tears.
During the hospital stay, they also put me on a liquid diet (as if I was even going to try to eat real food!), and I’ll never forget the moment they brought me pureed food on a tray. The tray had a lid on it, and once removed, it revealed tiny portions of pureed food that had been remolded into various food shapes (pureed pear in the shape of a pear and pureed meat in the shape of a steak, for example.) It hurt too much to eat, but I was so touched by the extra effort someone had exerted to make that food more appealing.
There is no good cancer. Of course, some diagnoses are more severe and some treatment plans more difficult. But all cancer diagnoses are tragic, and all aspects of the disease and of treatment plans are painful. And despite my deep gratefulness for surviving and my awareness of fortunate I am, I still have scars from those difficult years — physically and emotionally. I still fight anxiety and symptoms of PTSD, and it affects my personality and ability to enjoy life in ways I wish it didn’t. And just an hour ago, I learned that a man who had the same type of cancer as me recently died, after his wife shared the news in our online support group for those with Primary Mediastinal Diffuse Large B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I survived that “good” cancer, but not everyone does. There is no good cancer.
The thing is, I too am guilty of downplaying another person’s suffering. Sometimes, it comes from a selfish place, like when I hear someone complain about something that seems like a problem I’d love to have compared to my own. This is wrong, of course, not only because suffering is suffering, no matter how seemingly big or small, but also because we can never understand the pain of something until we experience it ourselves, and even then, we might experience it differently. It’s also just an unloving and completely unnecessary response to the pain of another person.
But, I’m even more guilty of downplaying another people’s suffering in an attempt to console them – to make them feel like whatever they’re going through is less difficult than it really is in hopes of cheering them up. I can think of two instances just this past week where I did this with a friend, and my son. I do it way too often with my sensitive little boy, in truth, as his big emotions tend to overwhelm me. And while this response may stem from good intentions, it’s still dangerous; for, it can make people think they’re crazy for feeling the pain they feel and cause them to try and stuff the painful emotions away, like I almost did today. It’s an unloving and unnecessary response too.
So, here’s to trying our best to let people feel what they feel. Let’s stop minimizing another person’s pain because it makes us uncomfortable, or because we wish it wasn’t there. Let’s not be afraid to merely say, “That must be so hard,” and offer an arm to hold on to or a shoulder to cry on. We will all suffer, that is for certain, and if we’re allowed to honestly share the pain we feel, we can come that much closer to truly healing our hearts and that much closer to truly connecting with one another.