The Sixth Blessing of Cancer: Greater Strength Through Suffering

After 6 months of treatment, I have finished two stem cell transplants. I am giving myself a sticker that says, “I can do Hard Things.”

Suffering is not a fun word. No one really looks forward to it. Most of us go out of our way trying to avoid it, but suffering is part of the human experience.

I ask myself why suffering is completely necessary. Why does personal growth have to come with such a high price tag? Why can’t my test of character come on a Mexican beach with ceviche, chips and an umbrella smoothie? I’ve been there before, and I LIKED it.

But all of the truly great people who have experienced suffering say the same thing about adversity:

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

In the middle of the suffering, I did not want to hear this. It seems a bit too rah-rah for such a hard moment when I was simply thinking about survival. During the low times, I just want to get through the suffering and be reassured that people love me. Although I know it is true, I don’t want to be told that opposition means growth or that adversity is for your own good. But after some suffering has subsided, I can face the truth. Lying motionless in an infusion room has taught me more than the lying on the beach.

A church leader once said that there are four types of adversity: 1) Adversity created by our poor choices 2) Adversity created by the poor choices of others 3) Adversity that is the “common lot of man” like death and disease, and 4) Adversity that is a personal tutorial for each of us individually.

The last six months started as the “common lot of man” adversity, but has truly become a very personalized set of challenges, growth and instruction. The result has been the receiving of hidden gifts. Suffering for me has produced four outcomes:

First, true suffering broke me down to my foundation. What would I rely on during the hard times? My level of mental, physical, moral and spiritual strength was tested and measured. My beliefs were tested and tried. My foundation was revealed and I clung to it with all my might. My foundation was first my faith. It was steady and sure, even when I wasn’t. My foundation was also a heavy reliance on my family and friends, who gave me great service, support and encouragement.

Second, after the initial shock wore off, suffering required that Paul and I act. Sitting on the beach, it is easy to hypothesize about how I would react to a cancer diagnosis, how I would treat my doctors and nurses, or how much I would really complain, but the infusion room is the Real Deal. There is no more “maybe I would…”, there is only action and choice. “Enduring well” without self-pity was the goal. We chose a treatment plan out of several options: herbal medicine, moderate long-term chemo, or two back-to-back bone marrow transplants. We made decisions to have Paul and the kids go back to Mexico. I agreed to show up every day for treatment. I agreed to more pulls during a bone marrow biopsy in the name of genetic research. Paul moved his office into the house. There were other actions we could take – We could complain about our circumstance, or not, and we could reach a breaking point and break, or not. Suffering required action on our part.

“Action is character,” says F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately or unfortunately, the third outcome was a display of character. Our actions showed what we were made of. While we have tried our best, times of trial always reveal areas where we are already strong, and areas where more work is needed. Strengths and weaknesses are both exposed. I could feel about 5 weaknesses being addressed all at the same time through the same trial –  a crash course of growth. Exposing the Real Me was a barometer of character and the exposure revealed our core thinking about how to live life, but my display of character mattered only if I remembered the fourth outcome: learning.

“The reward of suffering is experience,” says Harry S. Truman. The last and ultimate outcome of suffering for us was to become smarter and wiser, but only if we chose to see it. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wisely said: “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable” (“Lindbergh Nightmare,” Time, 5 February 1973, 35). Perhaps it is not the process of simply enduring the trial, but in the process of overcoming the trial that we gain the experience. 

I see the value of our suffering. We gained confidence and experience in our decision-making and in our trials. The move of Paul and the kids to Mexico was the right choice. The treatment at Huntsman was the right choice. Moving forward with faith was the right choice. Worry, which was natural, seemed to always be the wrong choice. The simultaneous demands of my health and work pushed us to a level of concern we had never seen before and it forced us to expand our capacity.

My brother-in-law’s severe leukemia and death almost six years ago prepared both Paul and me for what is required today. The highs were high, the lows were low, and the stress was unimaginable. The deep effects linger for his wife and six children, whom we love dearly. The learning for all of us was permanent. The trial prepared us for my cancer. We are calmer, smarter, stronger and more discerning. There are actions we would repeat. There are actions we would avoid. We were forced to mature and so we did, because we had to.

Call me slow, but I can’t learn every lesson the first time around. Supporting David and Tonya through his cancer helped to prepare us. The two back-to-back stem cell transplants were the same, but I learned radically different and important lessons during each transplant.

I don’t like pain and suffering, but I have seen it’s purpose and I am forever changed by it. I hope I am becoming good timber as described in this poem:

Good Timber

The tree that never had to fight

For sun and sky and air and light

But stood out in the open plain

And always got its share of rain,

Never became a forest king

But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil

To gain and farm his patch of soil,

Who never had to win his share

Of sun and sky and light and air,

Never became a manly man

But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease,

The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.

Douglas Malloch (or unknown)

The last six months have been painful but productive. Anything I have given up has been generously recompensed to me in greater compassion for the suffering of others, greater gratitude for simple things given to me everyday, greater patience to endure just a little longer, greater appreciation for the love shown, and greater confidence in my ability to do hard things.  I have tested out my foundation and have found it to be secure and dependable. Knowing that the Savior descended below all things gave me an immense sense of comfort and awe for the Atonement.

In hitting severe lows, I have also given myself mental permission to have greater joy in the highs. I want to smile more, sing at the top of my lungs, learn to dance the salsa, eat flourless chocolate cake and empanadas without guilt, meet fascinating people, visit a Mexican beach with ceviche and a smoothie, and embrace every high with greater enthusiasm. Beyond the experiences of self, I have learned how true joy comes – tending to the needs of others.

Our trial has been preparation for the future, personal instruction, and productive growth. There will always be more suffering, but it will make us become better. I have gained strength and will be ready for what is to come.

5 thoughts on “The Sixth Blessing of Cancer: Greater Strength Through Suffering

  1. Jenny,
    As always I read your posts with great humility. I am in Florida with my step-daughter, Erica, who is about 3/4 through her chemo for breast cancer, and who lost her mother to lung cancer in July. I spent a few minutes with her in a treatment center while she got a post-chemo shot, feeling like I had entered another world as I watched the people all around the room receiving their chemo infusions. Just those few minutes changed my perception of suffering and endurance; I can’t imagine what actually going through cancer feels like.

    I love you and continue to pray for you and learn from you. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the learning that comes with your searching.

    Cathy Sunderland

  2. Jenny,

    Your words lift my spirit in ways I cannot express here. What a gift you are to all around you.

    PS. My Spaniard wife has yet to teach me to dance Salsa. 🙂

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