How Suffering May Change You for the Better

April 17, 2014
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2013-016-10_kilingsworth_580x326I was reading an opinion piece by David Brooks in today’s New York Times and it clari

2013-016-10_kilingsworth_580x326I was reading an opinion piece by David Brooks in today’s New York Times and it clarified for me a theme I wanted to write about. Brooks wrote about the transformative effect of suffering in an age where everyone is pursuing happiness. I got to thinking about the suffering that comes with illness. When it is serious and protracted, it changes you. I have heard that so many times from cancer survivors. I know in my case, living with cancer since 1996, I have experienced it in my own life and since then I have become what I call “Andrew 2.0.” Different things are important; I am more introspective; I am more committed to others; and I celebrate every day. Of course, I have heard that from so many others. Cancer knocks you on your butt, and if you are lucky enough to get up and move on you are, in some ways, better for it.

This morning I met with my regular crowd of dog owners at the park. There’s one man I had not seen for awhile. Pepe (remember I live in Barcelona right now) was usually upbeat, smiling and making jokes. Not today. It turns out he has advanced colon cancer and is living with a lot of pain–emotional and physical. Scary, for him, treatment is around the corner and the future is in doubt. I shared with him that I am a two-time cancer survivor and doing well and that I know several colon cancer survivors who are  also doing well. He listened, but he’s in the thick of it.  I believe Pepe’s suffering will transform into a new way for him to see the world and his life. Now that more cancers can become long-term affairs, it allows us to re-evaluate and change, hopefully for the better. Suffering helped us find the strength we didn’t know we had.

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One of my mentors in the cancer world is a man named Pat Killingsworth. He has multiple myeloma. He has devoted his life to helping others with the disease and writes a daily blog. Recently, I interviewed Pat and he talked about the future as he described living on “myeloma time.” Whether you are suffering with this illness or another you must listen. Pat is very inspiring.

Of course, you don’t have to have cancer to have illness shake you to the core and force you to see things differently. As I write this my eldest child, Ari, 24, is lying in bed in Seattle with mononucleosis. This high energy young man who was days away from running in the Boston Marathon now is unable to run, temporarily, and is fighting fever, fatigue and a really bad sore throat. Many of us had this when we were younger. I am confident Ari will be fine even though he is suffering now and the illness has crushed one of his dreams.  There will be other marathons. And like the rest of us he will have a new perspective on the other side of this, more clarity on what’s important, more understanding of what we can control and what we can’t. Suffering teaches us that and we are better for it.