The Many Losses of Cancer

by Jun 1, 2018

Loss pervades the cancer experience.

The first loss is that life is never the same again. In the many ways that people live their lives, there is usually a past story, a present of immediate to indeterminate duration, and a future. We may be attempting to remain more in our present experience, and there may be a physical and spiritual truth that there is only the present moment, but people are generally organized around living toward a future, and have a story about where they come from and where they are heading.

Cancer immediately changes this story. The past leads up to this point, and then all future dreams, intermediate and distant come into question. The fact of impermanence, of changeability, of death, becomes stark, real and unavoidable. So there is a loss of perceived certainty of continuity, and there is a loss about unending time to accomplish life goals and realize your dreams.

There is the loss of the expectation of uninterrupted developmental milestones and transitions. It may be that life does not actually have these milestones, but we live as if this were true. The sense of identity based on a predictable future may be lost. So if you planned to marry and have children, or get a promotion, or reach a new level of athleticism, or retire and travel the world — all of this planning may come into question.

The loss of a sense of endless time is profound for many people – however this can also create hopeful and positive life results.

There are often immediate losses in relationships after a diagnosis of cancer. Relationship connections and communication can falter. If you are normally surrounded by close-in friends and acquaintances, you may notice the changing landscape of these friends. Some people in your world will not know how to respond, some will avoid, and some will have empathy that is slightly off. You may not want anyone to get close to you at this moment.

Friends and acquaintances will tell stories about friends they know who have survived and make insensitive comments accidentally about friends they know who have died. They may not know what else to say, and their awkwardness results in unskillful conversation. You may feel so vulnerable, and believe that it would require too much energy to try to communicate your needs directly, so friends get dropped partly intentionally, partly because to maintain them would require too much effort.

Everyone with cancer has at least some of these very painful relationship loss experiences, hopefully balanced by relationships and connections that are supportive and nurturing.

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The wisdom of enlightenment is inherent in every one of us. It is because of the delusion under which our mind works that we fail to realize it ourselves, and that we have to seek the advice and the guidance of enlightened ones.

— Hui Neng