When cancer touches your life, as it undoubtedly does for almost everyone at some point, it changes everything. It turns your life upside down while you battle it. And inside out once it has gone away -- whether through death or victory. When you are diagnosed with cancer you hear these statements from others who have passed through it before you. You are told that relationships will change, outlooks will be altered, you will find out who your true friends are.
It is impossible to truly understand how accurate all of this is until you are there yourself, facing something that is frightening in a way you couldn't have anticipated. Suddenly you find yourself searching for which familiar faces are still there to hold you up -- comforted by some you knew would remain, surprised at which ones emerge to support you and dismayed by the few that you were sure would be there but are nowhere to be found. As emotional as it was to feel love from unexpected people while being surprisingly deserted by others, I had at least been forewarned that this would probably occur.
I had also heard so many people say that cancer often changes the way you view the world and the way you choose to live your life. Again, it is amazing how accurate this is. If it isn't already embroidered on a pillow somewhere, it should be. No matter how fully you were already living your life, cancer can make you choose to fill it even more.
You realize editing is vital; actions and thoughts can be removed in order to make room for the things that are truly important. Cancer clarifies the essential aspects of life in a way that is hard to deny. To be honest, I truly feel that having cancer at the relatively young age of 31 was a blessing -- not even very disguised. I have the benefit of living out the rest of my life knowing, with complete certainty, what and who deserve my love, attention and time. Although, let me be clear, if you can take these words to heart and live your life accordingly, that is definitely the better option. I am not suggesting you attempt to have cancer while still young, obviously. So stop licking that microwaved plastic wrap and slowly step out of the tanning bed.
This clarity brings me to something I didn't foresee following my cancer diagnosis: I like fewer people. This may sound like a dramatic statement. I suppose it is. However, it is also true. Perhaps this simply isn't true for most people and that is why I don't hear it discussed as often as the other life alterations above. But personally, I think it is actually very connected to those revelations, even if it doesn't have the same positive ring to it. So let me explain.
My whole life, I have always cast a wide net when meeting new people. And the mesh was tight. All were scooped up, all were brought in close, barely any escaped through the tiny holes. I have been told I am friendly -- typically meant as a compliment -- but cancer taught me that even good things require moderation. (Except chocolate consumption, interestingly. Nothing about the experience of fighting cancer encouraged me to eat any less chocolate. In fact, the lack of moderation used when chocolate is present is probably a bigger problem for my second chin now than it was beforehand. Priorities.)
I found myself disconnecting with anyone who seemed to be taking more than they were giving, adding drama, or with whom I simply didn't feel a strong connection. And if you were using that time in my life to tell me you didn't want to be my friend? Well, I definitely wasn't going to debate you. The energy to be overly outgoing when meeting anyone new was gone. The need to fight for a friendship with someone that wasn't too eager to be my friend in the first place disappeared. The sense that I had to be super nice and inviting, even if deep down I knew there were behavioral red flags being thrown left and right slowly ebbed. The urge to make sure everyone liked me fell away. (This had always been the silliest compulsion of all anyway, since anyone can tell you that no matter how hard you try there will always be people who just do not like you. In fact, some will dislike you because you are trying so hard.) Simply put, I was able to be honest with myself that I didn't like everyone I met and that everyone I met would not like me. And both of those things are okay. They don't make anyone involved a bad person.
Looking back, it is almost embarrassing how little filtering I did prior to this cancer-induced realization. It should not have taken a cancer diagnosis for me to see that someone who is so self-absorbed that it takes an hour of conversation about herself for her to remember to congratulate a pregnancy should probably be kept at arms length. Or that I didn't need to keep accepting play date invites from someone who then spent each play date bashing me for dolling myself up in such extreme ways as...wearing earrings and mascara. Perhaps I should have walked away when someone told me they would never put their child in a gifted and talented class... moments after it came up that we had done so or when a fellow mom lectured me on the correct way to feed my kids more organically...after I had seen the neon, cartoon-laden products in her own kitchen. Perhaps I should have run. And if I had known how to be honest with myself, it's possible that I could have seen the red flags flapping wildly in my face as a new acquaintance proclaimed us 'sisters' before I had even met her (our?) parents.
To be clear, this new viewpoint does not involve being mean to people. Just because I am able to be honest with myself about whether I want to be around you or be your friend or not, doesn't mean I won't still be polite or kind. The world needs more thoughtfulness, generosity and smiles. I still believe that. But I know now that just because we meet doesn't mean you have earned the rights to my secrets within the first five minutes. It doesn't mean that if I sense hints of instability, judgment or antagonistic behavior that I am still required to move forward with a relationship of any sort. I have the right to choose who enters my life and at this point I have the strength to admit to myself when it isn't you. And yes, if you suggest matching tattoos within the first hour of chatting, are over the age of ten and still wear pigtails, or declare your admiration for the respectful discourse of Ann Coulter, then we weren't meant to be friends.
This could all come across as negative or as though I have lost a personality trait that helped make me who I am. In truth, I think the opposite is true. When the vulnerability of life becomes something you can actually feel, rather than something you simply discuss, you have to prioritize. There is neither room nor time to focus both on what is truly valuable and to let everyone in. Personally, I had to be honest with myself about who I connected with, who I cared about, and yes, even who I liked. The group was much smaller than I would have guessed. The number of people I would count as true friends has shrunk. But what I can offer them as a friend has grown. And moving forward, my net will be smaller and the holes will be wider. Less will remain against the mesh as I pull it closer to me, but I will have a greater confidence that they are worthy of my time and energy. They aren't kidding when they say life is short. We owe it to ourselves and the people we care about the most to make each moment and relationship valuable, by being honest with ourselves about who and what we truly value.
It's okay for that list to be short.