The Joys of Cancer??
It’s hard to see a silver lining to cancer.
The very word cancer strikes fear into most people’s hearts. In Yiddish, the word cancer is avoided, and usually referred to as “yener machala” (“that disease”). So why on earth has Betty Rollin written a book about the bright side of cancer?
Well, because she’s a cancer survivor. Having lost a mother to cancer, and battled cancer twice herself, she can speak with some authority on the subject. She recounts in her most recent book that:
“I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. Not that I didn’t have all kinds of things to be happy about — love, work, good health, enough money, the usual happy-making stuff. The weird part is, I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer — that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were.”
Believe it or not, Rollins’ reaction to her disease is far from unique. An article in the New York Times lists several authors who have written about finding happiness while struggling with cancer. One author, Wendy Schlessel Harpham, put it this way:
“Without a doubt, illness is bad, yet survivorship — from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of life — can include times of great joy among the hardships. You can find happiness.”
Finding happiness while suffering from cancer seems impossible. Yet remarkably enough, several cancer survivors in the article agreed with Lance Armstrong’s sentiment that “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
(I have to stop for a moment to add a disclaimer. Having observed too many times the havoc cancer wreaks, I know that one must write with sensitivity on this difficult subject. It is even more important to remember that each situation is unique, and certainly no patient or family should be judged by how “positive” or “negative” other people were. One must also remember, that even those patients who have reported positive experiences are not positive all the time; the “happy” ones cry a lot and suffer as well. And it would be a crime if the observations of these authors were used to make any person suffering or mourning feel guilty for not being “positive enough”.)
This notion is counterintuitive. Cancer makes it much harder to be happy. If it’s so difficult to grab a few moments of happiness, how happy can you really be?
Really happy. These authors have stumbled on the essence of the human spirit: the harder we try, the sweeter the success.
A concept championed by Kabbalists is the idea of the “bread of shame”. The Kabbalists believe that God created the world out love for mankind, so they can do good deeds and be rewarded for them. Well, if that’s so, ask the Kabbalists, why would God make being good so difficult?
The response is based on the analogy of the “bread of shame’. A person gains much more joy from a piece of bread he earned by his own hard work, than he does from a piece of bread handed to him. There is nothing more precious to human beings than their independence, their ability to be the masters of their own lives. When someone is handed a loaf of bread, they are embarrassed, because they have lost their independence and must beg for bread of shame.
For this reason following the good path is always difficult. To be good because it’s easy to be good would compromise human greatness, and would deprive man of his ability to choose his own destiny. If God had made it easy for us to be good, the rewards given for goodness would be the “bread of shame”. When we have to work hard to achieve the goal of goodness, the unique satisfaction of that triumph is the greatest reward.
These authors, writing about the joys of cancer, have stumbled on the concept of the “bread of shame”. When you must battle to find joy and happiness in times of difficulty, that hard fought joy is so much sweeter than anything else.
Happiness warriors know how hard we all have to battle for happiness. But we know that it is actually the battle itself that makes the achievement even more satisfying. Happiness is not served up on silver platters; but when you manage to create it on your own, it is a remarkable experience.