What do you do when you find out that your 27 year old wife has cancer?
Well, first you cry a lot.
After all, it’s quite a shock. One day she’s perfectly healthy. The next day, she’s still perfectly healthy – only the doctors rate her 5 year survival rate at less than 20%.
But crying’s the easy part.
Next you have to see lots of doctors in quick succession. With a bit of luck, they all make the same recommendations.
You decide on the protocols of treatment.
So far so good, but for my wife and I, the decision making part had only just begun.
Cancer or no cancer was a choice that had been made for us. While we could theoretically decide on treatment, it wasn’t exactly an option to disagree with the doctors. So where are the decisions?
The choice was in attitude. Were we going to allow ourselves to slip into depression or not? Were we going to become bitter or not? Were we going to allow pain to become suffering? Seemingly so out of control and yet, at the same time, so many choices – and beautiful, uplifting and inspiring choices at that.
We discovered that pain will only ever affect you as much as you allow it to. When my son cuts his finger, he screams the house down. He allows the pain to become the only focus of his life for that moment and it overwhelms him – until the love of a parent’s kiss becomes a new, more meaningful, focus. As adults, all that changes is the threshold. Unless we make conscious decisions otherwise.
Pain can overwhelm; but pain, no matter how great, is no match for the power of the human soul. Our Rabbis tell us that, ‘nothing stands before a human being who makes a decision’ – not a whim or a desire, but a decision. This became very real to us. Cancer can take over your life. It’s so easy, enticing almost, to submit to its horror and allow it to become your master.
Or you can face it down and grow from it. You can become a better person through it and hence learn not to resent it.
It’s not about being brave. That’s a bit too grandiose. It’s about deciding whether or not you want to lose control.
‘This too is for the good’: a phrase our Sages used to say whenever bad happened to them. I used to think it was an act of blind faith – God is good, so this must be good also, no matter how tangible the bad might seem.
But I realised that what our Sages were saying was so much deeper. When we heard it was cancer – and not your 95% survival rate cancer – they were almost the first words out of my wife’s mouth: ‘this too is for the good.’
It took me a little longer to be able to say it. But when I did, it forced me to ask the right question: what good? – and to go looking for it. It was a search that we embarked upon together. And when we looked, we only found.
I think that if you start on the fence – ‘is this good or is this bad?’ – you will only arrive at one conclusion. The immediacy and intimacy of the pain will enforce its own answer. If you want to find good, you have to begin with the premise that there is good. You have to seek it with a vengeance. Because there is so much pain to push away. When we looked for good, we found good that made the pain pale into insignificance. Be it the growth in our own relationship, be it how we have bonded with our four children, be it how much deeper our relationship has become with God, be it the love we have felt from the Jewish community, be it the support we have been able to give others. The list goes on.
I’ve found that you can ask ‘why’ in two ways. You can ask from bitter resentment and I believe you will find no answer. For that is not what you are looking for. Or you can ask from honest innocence.
I think that the answers are there. We just don’t always look properly.
After the nightmare of high dose chemotherapy, my wife is now, thank God, in complete remission. Cancer, however, is a tenacious illness. The future is still unclear. But that is part of the beauty and challenge of life. If we knew the future, we would not be able to shape it ourselves. While the superficial things in life are always decided for us, the deepest realities of whom we are, depend entirely on who we choose for ourselves to be.
Life’s most significant decisions are always ours to make.