Reframing cancer as an opportunity to grow
by Brenda Tan
LOOKING back at my reaction last month to my doctor’s diagnosis of my stomach cancer, I realise that my reaction to the news was probably not the norm. Even though every cancer diagnosis is unique, and reactions to cancer diagnosis depend greatly on a patient’s age, personality, family situation and presentation of cancer, I suspect that when a doctor breaks the news of cancer to his patient, the usual reaction is not a cheerful curiosity about what’s to come next.
I had a lot of time this month while healing from my gastrectomy to think about why I’m wired so weirdly.
Off the top of my head are three reasons for my reaction:
1. My faith
2. My work in organisational change
3. My philosophy about life in general
I am a Christian and I wholeheartedly believe that my God has a purpose for my life. The plan that He has for me is good, and that suffering and hardship is also a part of that plan for my spiritual growth in faith and faithfulness. Furthermore, I believe that while this plan is in action, my God does not abandon me to undertake the hardship on my own. In fact, He undergoes this journey with me, as well as sends people in my path to encourage and sojourn with me.
Nevertheless, I am not naive about how painful and tough going through cancer would be – if not for myself, but also for my family and loved ones.
Fifteen years ago, my Pa passed away from Stage 4 lung cancer when I was in my late-20s. The helplessness I felt when I saw Pa going into decline as his strength slowly failed, and as he relied more and more on his painkillers to ease his suffering, remains an indelible memory for me.
Yet, Pa showed me that God is good, and in His time, Pa gained the peace he sought. Pa was blessed with a happy and colourful life of love and friendship; he not only raised his daughter and son to adulthood, he was even a proud Ah Kong to my toddler son!
My work in organisational change
Apart from contributing articles to The Middle Ground, I work together with my husband Noel to help organisations and communities understand, navigate and adapt to change.
Some changes can be anticipated – we are able to see what’s coming on the horizon and plan for it. For organisations and communities, this may mean having to cope with new technologies on the horizon that may disrupt the way things work or consider what “new normals” would affect the way people in the organisation relate to one another.
On a more personal level, these may be the changes we can anticipate as a family: our children going to primary school next year, our ageing parents’ needs or even changes that we might face at work due to restructuring. Being aware of what’s on the horizon helps us prepare – whether this may mean moving closer to our parents or to the kids’ school, having to be more circumspect about our family expenditure to plan for the family’s growing needs, or having to prioritise our time for family and work.
While most people understand change as inevitable, perhaps the toughest changes are the ones no one can plan for. These are the sudden disruptions to the careful plans we make, simply because the environment we live in is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
So how do we help our clients with such disruptions?
We help our clients reframe these changes from a negative perspective to a positive one; from seeing the disruption as a “crisis” to one of “opportunities”.
We ask: How might this change be a good thing?
Once we use a positive frame, we are able to see possibilities. Following that, anticipation and enthusiasm usually help move the dialogue from a paralysing fear of the crisis to ways to surmount the challenge.
A cancer diagnosis is certainly a huge disruption. And depending on how the cancer presents itself, it may very well be challenging just to frame cancer as a positive change.
When my doctor told me I had stomach cancer, my habit of having a positive frame naturally led me to see this disruption as an adventure – to undergo a journey of new experience. Like all new experiences, I knew that it would mean new learning and a new area of growth for myself.
During this month of healing from my operation, I began to better understand the amazing possibilities this disruption has afforded me.
Since the operation, I’ve had a steady stream of visitors who brought much joy and laughter whenever they came to see me. I’ve repeated my cancer story to to them to the point my 8-year-old could end off my sentences. After sharing my story, we would spend the rest of the time playing catch-up about what’s been going on in each others’ lives. Sometimes, our conversation would turn sober – how a friend/parent/sibling was also undergoing medical treatments. During these times, we both take comfort in the fact that whether as a caregiver or a patient, we each have difficult journeys to undertake – one step at a time – and that we can support one another by just listening to each other’s stories.
Another area that opened up was the many messages, emails and visits from cancer survivors and cancer patients. They shared with me their cancer stories to encourage me on my journey.
Invariably, these are stories of how they are now more aware of the people around them, and how they were sustained through the cancer treatments by the support from loved ones and their faith. They share a story of appreciating time: time to live, love and be generous with the people around them. Their stories also offer a fascinating glimpse of how their cancer led them on a different path and purpose when they became cancer-free.
In an interesting way, cancer transforms and awakens those it touches.
Frankly, I have my cancer to thank for allowing me this time to sit at a pitstop, in order to appreciate the love of people surrounding me.
My philosophy about life in general
I hold my personal successes in life lightly.
That is not to say that I don’t give my best in everything I do – I do! After all, I am a born and bred Singaporean!
But unlike many Singaporeans, I don’t define myself by my successes or accolades that people give me.
When I became a mother, my willingness to relinquish my success as a school teacher allowed me the space to learn and grow to enjoy my new identity as a mother. Being unemployed gave me the opportunity to further my studies and gain a degree. I also had space to stumble into being an entrepreneur with my husband. We later stepped out of our success in the local school-enrichment space to explore different frontiers, which led us to work globally in the facilitation field. I relinquished my role as trainer/facilitator to pick up the markers and become a graphic recorder when my husband facilitated, and then I found myself working successfully in a wholly new element. Opportunities later arose for me to give back to the community by encouraging and mentoring other practitioners in my field.
It is not that I don’t struggle in relinquishing my successes. I am human too, so it is really hard to say goodbye to what you know you’re really good at, and to start from scratch at a new endeavour. It requires stepping out from an area of expertise to become the newbie, and it is extremely humbling to have to learn afresh – not to mention having to take time to tackle the learning curve.
However, I believe that when we hold tightly to our successes, it can be limiting to personal growth.
We become limited to what we are successful in, and become defined by what we are seen as good as. We are so good at what we do that we grow afraid of letting it all go, and spend a lifetime pursuing accolades to affirm our success in whatever fields we are in – sometimes, even to the detriment of our health and family. And when we do get those accolades we seek, it never seems enough, nor does it satisfy us the way we believe it ought to.
Success breeds an “expert” mentality where we believe there’s little left for us to learn. We dismiss possibilities and other ways of thinking, simply because our success and the way we got successful are the only lens we’ve worn. We wonder, “Why can’t other people be like us?” and discount that others walk in very different shoes from us, even if they hold similar hopes and values.
Joseph Campbell, the originator of the notion of the hero’s journey puts it best: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Perhaps because I have meandered much, I have learnt that whenever I allow myself to let go these hard-earned successes, I create space for something new to come into my free hands.
Thus, despite finding myself at an unexpected roadblock when things are going well, I can be cheerfully curious about where the path would lead. My interest is heightened, I itch to learn more, I want to see if I have solutions yet to be tried. I want to get better, and I want to share what I’ve learnt with all my family and friends, so that they can benefit from it.
Perhaps my weird wiring is what keeps me buoyant even as I am now awaiting for my chemotherapy treatment at the end of the month. I am immensely grateful that my faith, work and philosophy have come together to enable me to see my cancer as a opportunity for a different positive outcome – one that’s not just about getting well, but more importantly, one that will expand my horizon and allow me to make a positive impact on the people around me.
Brenda is a columnist, and a friend, of The Middle Ground. Read her first piece, in a series of occasional columns on her journey with stomach cancer, here.
Featured illustration by Natassya Diana
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