It Is Possible to Have A Life Well Lived Despite Cancer

The kind of combative language Lynne used during her breast cancer battle didn't feel appropriate when her parents were diagnosed with terminal cancers, so she had to find a new vocabulary that would do them justice.

As children, my brother and I played with little green army men. We strategically placed a company of soldiers on the far end of the playroom room, the lucky ones behind wooden blocks and the other poor devils out in the open with their stationery guns that would be no match for what was to come.

Leaning against the opposite wall, my brother and I shot marbles down an empty wrapping paper tube with machine gun accuracy, wiping out the enemy forces. Occasionally a few soldiers remained and we were forced to send in heavy artillery – a Matchbox car blasted from the cannon tube.

My brother and I won every battle against the green army men.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer decades later, I had no trouble adopting military jargon to describe my treatment. With a bulls-eye on my chest, I battled the green-eyed monster, determined to be the victor of every battle. My mindset was to kick cancer in the teeth and take back everything it had stolen.

Take that, little green army men! After completing treatment, I rang the bell at the hospital as the conquering hero and considered the war over.

But then my dad was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, followed soon afterward with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer for my mom. Their doctors dropped the familiar phraseology jargon of winning and conquering, speaking instead of life-extending options.

Comfortable in my competitive “winner takes all” mindset, I struggled to find words to describe my parents’ narratives. Labeling my dad a loser as he joked with his nurses and drove his bucket-list white convertible to town didn’t sit right with me--neither did saying my mom was losing the fight as she bravely went to chemo with her lipstick in place.

What words are left for the valiant?

I discovered I needed to learn to speak another language. Not Spanish. Or Greek. Or French. Not the words of winning and losing. Surprisingly, it was my parents’ friends who taught me the words.

Men and women who had lived through the Great Depression. Several wars. Thirteen presidents. People who remembered life before television, computers, and indoor plumbing. People with more life experience and who had known not only great joy, but also great suffering.

I heard the words in four neighbors who showed up after an ice storm to trim the damaged trees on my parents’ property, the place I had once played army men with my brother and Barbies with my sisters. Mom stepped outside and the guys put down their chainsaws. Old farmers pushed back thinning hair and asked about Dad who rested inside, the cancer having moved to his brain.

I heard the words in women who came with tater tot casseroles, sloppy joes, and lasagna -- the food and love of the Midwest. These women, who had known me as a pimply teenager and a young bride, now embraced me in their circle of five-decade friendships.

I heard the words in my mom’s cousin, a pastor, who stopped by several times a week to “just check in.” During the conversation of the weather, the price of soybeans, and my parents’ latest round of treatments, he would invite everyone to join him in The Lord’s Prayer. He spoke of a life beyond this life.

None of these people spoke of "winning" or "losing" the "cancer battle." They spoke of living a life well lived –despite cancer. They used the same words with me as they did with my mother and father. Because the words of the valiant are not always that of a conqueror. Sometimes the words of the valiant are that of a life well lived.

My own parents - teachers who taught lessons all their lives - taught me the most important lesson of all:

Cancer is simply part of a journey not meant to be taken alone.

What kind of words do you use to describe your journey after cancer diagnosis? Share them in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of Nathália Bariani