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“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
– Buddha

By Mark Silverstein – Patient
By Mark Silverstein – Patient

I had already written five very different versions of this, what I at least thought were smart topics but then I started thinking…in therapy I often tell my clients one feels things in their body before it enters their consciousness. It took several days, and as I said several previous topics, for me to listen to that pull in my stomach telling me I am not listening well…that I wasn’t writing from my heart.

So I guess my heart thought it was a good time of year to talk about compassion. I’m not sure what your definition of the word is but I will use the definition of a very wise therapist I know – compassion is the ability to meet suffering with loving kindness, either one’s own or the suffering of others. To be present to whatever that suffering may be for you, and to sit with it, without judgement or the need to fix it. Often it is just enough to acknowledge it to yourself, out loud, and/or have the feeling validated by another to begin the healing journey. I have seen people come into the cancer support groups closed off, in a great deal of pain, and within ten weeks blossom in the most amazing ways.

Cancer initiates all sorts of suffering – mental, physical, and spiritual. It often touches every area of our lives and leaves nothing unscathed. It forces us to deal (sometimes at our own pace and sometime at the pace of those around us) with the effects caused by the multitude of fears that can arise from a cancer diagnosis, the grief created by the many losses that accumulate throughout the process, as well as the often fundamental shifts in our understanding of life (and death) which effects our relationship to ourselves and others.

I think fear is a totally understandable reaction to being diagnosed with cancer. It is scary to lose control of our bodies, and our lives. Being compassionate is giving yourself permission to acknowledge the fear, to name it and speak it out loud. To give yourself permission to feel it. Have you ever noticed a rise in conflict between you and the people in your life in the days preceding an oncology appointment? Were you discussing all that you were sitting with, did you give each other the space to express it, or were you pretending it wasn’t there for one reason or another.

The suffering is in not being able to acknowledge the fear and perhaps getting stuck in it by becoming sad, depressed and withdrawn , or holding it down until it can no longer be contained and emotionally erupts in one way or the other – rage, anger, tears, conflict.

How we see ourselves, our new physical state, the roles we defined ourselves by, what we did for others that allows us to feel valued and loved all are affected. We can no longer sustain the old image either due to physical limitations brought on by treatments, the disease itself, or the emotional trauma of the process that changes our relationship with ourselves and how we would like to be in the world. Many find it hard to be kind to themselves in these moments, to be compassionate, and often beat ourselves up for things that we would never be so unkind to do to someone else.

If you are one who is used to taking care of everyone else, how painful is it that you are not only unable to do that the way you once could, but now you have to ask for the help of others. Or was it always you who put on holiday dinners, and you just went through treatment and are still greatly affected by it, but you say yes anyway cause you always do. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, that cancer has already brought a new awareness and you begin to recognize this and make a choice that you want to be more for you but don’t know how to get there – it is terribly hard for some to simply say no after a lifetime of always saying yes.

I am guessing we all had people who did not show up for us, some hurting us quite deeply. Did you question what you did, why you are not lovable. Or were you able to recognize, that although it was hurtful, it was about their capacity to be with you in your time of suffering. That their fears, their way of dealing with things, was the cause. That although it was about you in the moment, they made it about themselves.

The “I should” is raised by your “inner critic” – that voice in your head that often spends time beating you up for one thing or another, echoing the messages of ones’ family, culture, and society and in the process shaming us for no longer being able to live up to those expectations, whether by choice or not. It often forces us to spend our precious energy fighting to be the person we once were or beating ourselves up for no longer being that person.

Compassion simply holds a place for that suffering until you can move through it to a place of acceptance, where you can work with it instead of against it. That you begin to move to your own beat. I only wish it was a turn-of-a-switch or a one-time event but it’s not. It’s a process and sometimes a long and difficult one.

I understand the repercussions of not being who you once were or in control the way you perhaps once thought you were. I also understand, better than I sometimes would like, that I am on borrowed time. And that perhaps the biggest impact of the suffering is that it stops us from the one gift we can give to ourselves and others – being totally present to the moment and to the people we love, as in the end its seems to me that’s all there really is…or ever was.

Happy Holidays!

I was born & raised in Toronto, Canada, and currently reside in the suburbs with my wife and two step-children. In December 2010, at the age of 45, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 SLL and proceeded with 6 rounds of FCR. I had a reoccurrence late last year, and after several months of watch & wait, I began treatment with Ibrutinib this past August. Prior to my original diagnosis I was an account manager for a global IT company – I was laid off soon after my return from chemo and decided to go back to school for psychotherapy. I currently have both a private practice, as well as co-facilitating a survivor group at the local hospice. In addition, I facilitate my own wellness support group for people with an advanced (metastatic) cancer diagnosis. If you have comments or would like to contact Mark directly, please email him at [email protected].

Originally published in The CLL Tribune Q4 2015.