Wednesday 18 November, 2020

Beyond Resilience – Growing from Cancer Trauma

Now is a good time to tell you a little more about me.

One question I have consistently received throughout my life is how I can simply choose to look beyond the fear of failure, move beyond pain, and keep my head up. For my answer, I’ll tell you this: cancer isn’t the first time I’ve stared death in the face.

Suffering strokes as a kid

When I was fourteen years old, on the cusp of emerging out of pubescent uncertainty into the formative years of self-awareness, I suffered two—TWO—physically-induced strokes. I had been competing in Judo class, and another boy choked me. My basilar artery dissected, a clot formed, and two weeks later I went down in the middle of class change in my junior high school.

I remember it like yesterday. I had been leaving science class on the upper floor and heading to math class. I jumped down the staircase, and when I impacted the ground, I became dizzy and lost all control of my body. I started vomiting uncontrollably, and I was eventually rushed to the hospital for a series of tests—a spinal tap, a CT scan, an MRI, etc.—which ultimately revealed the clot and first stroke on my pons, part of the brainstem responsible for neural pathway signal transmission. I underwent an experimental surgery using an unproven drug to bust the clot. It was successful, but not before massive damage had occurred. I suffered a second stroke on my cerebellum, important for motor and emotional control.

Seventy percent of my neural network essentially disintegrated as a result of the strokes, and I was left in a paralyzed state known as locked-in syndrome. Let me tell you something about locked-in syndrome: I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s akin to being buried alive—fully aware, fully cognitive, but unable to move a single thing except my eyelids, which I could blink.

Anti-fragility in the face of adversity

It took me months to rebuild my neural network and regain muscle coordination, and years of therapy to recover my physical strength and body function. I quite literally had to learn to stand up, walk, talk, etc.—like being a toddler all over again. The psychological and emotional healing took a lot longer, and there were more than a few… turbulent… episodes in my life.

But through it all I became stronger. The adversity I had faced—defeating locked-in syndrome and being reborn as a fully-functioning human—took me to what I felt was a heightened plane of existence, where the mundane and trivial didn’t bother me, and where I know how infinitely worse things could be. The hardships I overcame throughout years of limping, slurring, and never fitting in—of continuous ostracization while attempting to catch up to my peers—only hardened me against them. Now, 23 years after my strokes, you would never know I’d suffered anything at all, and you’d likely ask the same questions I started this with: how and why are you so unconcerned about thrusting yourself into the arena.

The strokes were a “large-scale unpredictable and irregular event[] of massive consequence”  also known as a “Black Swan”, a term coined by the scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He first wrote about them in his book Black Swan. Later, he wrote a book proposing a solution to the Black Swan problem called Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. It is anti-fragility I want to discuss. I’m going to attempt to distill Nassim’s postulation from macroeconomic theory and risk analysis to a simple example of recovering from a life-altering medical tragedy.

In the prologue to Antifragile, Nassim writes: “Anti-fragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better.” He later builds on this premise with an anecdote about a government advisor and policy maker discussing a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth (as opposed to stress). Simply put, people harmed by paste vents surpass themselves. They become better.

As Nietzche put it, “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

This is what I think happened to me after my strokes, and I think it happened again after my cancer diagnosis. For whatever reason, each time I chose—whether consciously or subconsciously—to become more rather than to be defined by what I had lost. And in doing so, my mindset adapted accordingly. Possibility of rejection or failure? Sure, bring it on. Vulnerable expressions, including honesty, pain, and shame? No problem. Constraints by what other people might think or how they might react? Nah, who cares. Admittedly, the depth to which I’ve shifted my values has increased significantly in the last year, but there has always been a current running underneath all of my decisions over the last few decades.

This perspective is not without criticism. Even something as entrenched as Nietzsche’s statement can be challenged. For instance, read the article by Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., published in Psychology Today in 2010: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker. Shpancer chalks up our society’s fascination with and adherence to post-traumatic growth as confirmation bias—our mind’s assumption that two events are causally linked based on our natural tendency to see, remember, and report instances supporting our beliefs. His point, essentially, is that we are stronger despite hardship, not because of it, and that we are actually more susceptible to disorder in the end.

My approach to post-traumatic growth and vulnerability in relationships

I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not going to engage in the debate between two accredited academics. But I am going to interpret my own experience from a place where post-traumatic growth is a thing, and where my struggles have shaped who I am. If nothing else, there is value in reflecting on our pasts and learning from them, and in so doing becoming a better version of ourselves. This might not be inherent post-traumatic growth—something akin to Nassim’s theorizing—but it is shepherded and chosen growth. Whereas Nassim attributes anti-fragility to a state of being, I suggest we can choose to go beyond being robust—beyond resilience.

We can, in keeping with our vulnerable principles, decide to grow from adversity. We can say, “Staying the course is not enough. Surviving is not enough. Accepting our new reality is not enough.” We can instead say, “I have cancer, and this is how it has changed me, and why I am now a better version of myself.”

That might be hard at first, I get it, but it is critically important for our mental health and wholeheartedness to try. If we can move beyond the fact we now carry a disease, we can learn to approach the world not only as we once did—a state of resilience—but also in new and exciting ways.

So how does this relate to dating with cancer? Since my interactions with D and K, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to several other women—I’ve even gone on several real dates, and second and thirds, too! And I credit all of my success to vulnerability. I know because I’ve been straight-up told how much it resonates and endears. Not because it is a manipulative dating tactic, but because it is the purest most genuine form of expression. It is brave. And none of it would have been possible had I not grown from trauma, as you are capable of growing.

We can become anti-fragile. We must.

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