Cancerning Lessons: Learning from Cancer Without Having It

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YACC Communications Coordinator, Dominique Caggiano

I’ve learned a lot about cancer in the past year.  I’m pretty solid on the biological aspects at this point. I’ve learned that the treatment and aftermath are often more painful than the disease itself.  I’ve learned that for many, cancer pervades more than just the physical body. It can mercilessly snake its way into someone’s thoughts, disrupting their relationships and sense of self, among other things. It can catapult them into a state of liminality and pervading uncertainty.  Of course, this isn’t true for everyone who has received a cancer diagnosis. In fact, what I’ve learned about “the cancer experience,” is simply that there are no constants. The responses to and experiences of cancer are just as diverse as the group of people that it impacts.

Everything that I think I know about cancer has been related to me by some incredible people who are parts of the YACC community and beyond.  For the past six months or so, I’ve been a Communications Coordinator for YACC, which has given me the opportunity to interact with many young adults in this community.  During my last year of college, my academic pursuits revolved almost exclusively around the completion of my senior thesis, an ethnographic piece presenting the illness narratives of 6 cancer survivors from a local parish.  With these two experiences in tandem, I have spent a lot of time talking about cancer, reading about it, and hearing about it…over the phone, through emails, and between heavy, often tearful conversations at a corner table in Starbucks.  Every conversation began with a degree of self-disclosure and shared vulnerability, as I related the experience of losing my grandfather to lung cancer. But there were times when I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t my place to hear or to attempt to relate to the story of someone who has actually lived it. For that reason, I want to thank everyone I have interviewed so far, for your patience, understanding, and willingness to open up to me.

Your experience cannot be adequately captured or statically defined by my limited words, but it is my hope that the act of telling and retelling the story might, in some way, be a cathartic experience.  I hope that the conversations we’ve shared have given you a sense of ownership and control over your own narrative, and I want to share with you what I’ve learned from these conversations so far.

To be an active listener. I’ve learned that it’s often better to stay quiet and listen than to say the wrong thing. I recognize that a friend in need doesn’t always need my advice; they may just need comfort, companionship, and a listening ear.

To be patient with others. For me, this applies to friends and strangers alike. It’s important to realize that I rarely know what’s going on below the surface. Why not give someone the benefit of the doubt?

To embrace community. It’s okay to seek it out, and to lean on others for support when I can’t do it alone.

This list isn’t exhaustive, and I haven’t mastered these lessons by any means, but it’s a start. While my work in the past six months culminated in the (awesome) Cancervention, I’m grateful to be continuing as a Communications Coordinator for YACC, embracing my small role in advocating for this community.

-By Dominique Caggiano

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