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Dr. C: Cancer at Christmas, and handling the cards you’ve been dealt

12/22/2014 04:29 EST | Updated 02/20/2015 05:59 EST
"What am I — the patron saint of cancer?" I say to myself sarcastically. I detest my job at this time. I have to do something extremely difficult, that I'm starting to do often.

She's in her 30s. The cancer is in the major lymph nodes in her chest and pelvis. I'm about to tell her what the next few weeks are going to look like, about all of the tests and treatments coming.

I watch her face as I tell her.

I know everything she's thinking.

She says the only thing she's worried about right now is how her family is going to feel about this over Christmas.

This time last year, I had the same kind of concerns. I thought about how we omitted the family picture because it was a year we didn't want to remember, about how my Christmas was spent with a mask on, without cheer or laughter.

I think about the holidays now, and how lucky I am.

Those 'normal' pleasures

But of all the things I'm thankful for, to go back to being "normal" was the greatest pleasure of all.

To drink a coffee with sweetener and not freak out thinking it would cause cancer. To stop checking my neck every half an hour like a crazy person. To eat in a restaurant without worry or anxiety.

To not have to take my temperature at night or have an IV in my arm.

That's freaking sweet.

I sometimes forget that I had cancer, and that's really nice. It means that nightmares aren't more powerful than dreams. To forget a sadness in your life almost makes it cease to exist.

Almost.

Seeing the toll of illness

I'm reminded about it when I look at their faces. I've told three people this week that they have cancer. Two of them are going to die in a matter of weeks.

I'm watching one die, and I can't help him. No one can help him.

I'm different now. I see patients differently. I see their medical illness but now I also see the person suffering from that illness.

I know the weight and magnitude of their suffering. I see how providing care for the sick takes a toll on entire families. I see what illness does, and how people sometimes show great character in the face of sickness.

Yes, we all suffer, but most of the time, we suffer well. And that's something I realize is so important.

A time for character

When malady strikes, it is the most crucial time to show character, it is the best moment to bare your misery with dignity, because that act of suffering well is what provides for a good death or a better life.

I take a bit more home than I used to. I still see people die, and I still find that tough, but I see their deaths as an end of their suffering.

Sometimes death is kinder than life. Life gives all sorts of cards to all sorts of people: some good, some bad, and some terrible. But death — it gives the same card to everyone.

So, will my cancer ever come back? I don't know.

But right now I don't need to struggle with the question. I just need to help someone else get through theirs.

And that's beautiful to me.

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