The supposed spiritual benefits of going through breast cancer were lost on Barbara Ehrenreich. Then she learned to put up with a little help from her friends.
We've all heard about the bright side of breast cancer: You find out who your friends are, you make new ones, you grow closer to your family, you discover the sustaining power of the human community. I would emerge from this, if I emerged at all, a richer, deeper, more loving and spiritual person. I would reflect, I would grow, I would inwardly bloom, blah-blah. So why, two months into my cancer career, was I turning into an outright bitch, poised to bite every hand that reached out to me?

I decided I needed to understand my anger and either accept or control it—so I turned, of course, to a friend.

The problem, I told her now, was that I don't want to have cancer, don't want to be reminded that I have cancer, and certainly don't want to lose my identity to cancer—and that's why I've started hating my friends. When they call to ask how I am and how they can help, don't they see they're only rubbing it in?

"Well," she said, when I was done sputtering, "maybe it's just hard for you to accept any help. For some of us, you know, that's the hardest thing in the world."

Nobody comes into this world with the word helper stamped on her forehead for life. We all start out as children—i.e., consumers of help—and progress to the status of helper only through a long process of moral education, learning that other people have feelings like our own, then learning, bit by bit, how to use words and actions to affect those feelings, to soothe and delight and reassure. What nobody tells us is that, at some point in our lives, we're going to have to go in the opposite direction and become, once again, the recipients of other people's care.

I began to comprehend, for the first time, the miraculous symmetry of the helping relationship: By letting others be helpful, I might, in some small way, also be helping them.

So am I a richer, deeper, more spiritual person because of cancer? Frankly, no. Breast cancer, in my experience, is not so much about "growth" as it is about pain and loss—and the same goes for any other dire disease, like leukemia or AIDS. Breast cancer robbed me of precious time, physical and sexual self-confidence, not to mention thousands of dollars. But thanks to one very wise woman, I got through it without losing my friends.


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