Pain, Healing, and Purpose

Pain can take many forms. As a pretty concrete person, when I hear pain, I first think about physical pain. Since I live with chronic pain, I’m well acquainted with this kind of pain. However, I’m also acquainted with psychological and emotional pain, not just as a woman living with terminal cancer, but also as a human being. I’m not sure any human being reaches adulthood without feeling some amount of pain and some have dealt with more pain than others.

But what happens with this pain? What do we do with it?

Before I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) in 2017, I had experienced some trauma and I did think that I had good coping mechanisms for dealing with the resulting psychological/emotional/mental pain. I saw myself as resilient and able to use the trauma I’d experienced to move forward and I think those around me would agree with that. For instance, I experienced the trauma of a divorce as a young woman and I used that experience to relate with the men and women I worked with as a legal advocate as they walked through divorce. That experience redeemed my own trauma as I used my own pain to comfort and advocate for others, while demonstrating to each of them that there is life after such trauma. Some of those former clients have become my biggest cheerleaders in my experience with cancer.

This blueprint has served me well over the years and has functioned as a foundation for how I’ve been able to use my diagnosis with terminal cancer to extend a helping hand to others in the MBC community. It’s harder and I have to take a lot more breaks. I have to focus much more on giving myself grace and lower my own expectations of myself since I can’t function at the same level before my diagnosis.

And yet, one of the things that I struggle with and I hear with others is that the process of healing is so slow, that the PTSD type flashbacks often set us back, that others in our lives don’t understand why we are still struggling with something, and that it can be frustrating.

I want to first say that this is 100% normal. Grieving a change or a trauma is not sequential or logical or a straight line. I found this meme to be helpful in putting this feeling into words ….

This has been my experience, that the healing process has been slow and gentle and often extremely anti-climactic. For me, the longer I leaned in, focused on the responses I had when reminded of my trauma, and really examined how I was feeling, the less power the trauma had for me. When I stuffed it, distracted myself, looked away, and generally tried to outrun my pain, the worse it was.

There was no ah-ha moment for me as I’ve healed from my traumas (before MBC), just a gradual and gentle understanding that I could view it with more objectivity, more compassion for myself, and better clarity.

As to the trauma of MBC, that’s a whole other animal. That trauma happens over and over and over. I’m brought back into the trauma nearly daily as I navigate the side effucks, the ongoing treatment that I will be on for life, the regular scan, treat, repeat pattern that is my life now, and the constant reminders by the deaths of my friends, that I will die sooner than a “normal” life expectancy. An ongoing trauma that provides such ongoing reminders is not something that is easy to handle and the more I work to deal with it, the fresher it is. I don’t have any answers here, except to keep leaning in, keep identifying and acknowledging my emotions, keep connecting with others.

And …

This has been true for me. As I work to navigate my own pain and I see how others in my life and in the MBC community navigate it as well, I see clearly how I can help. I see clearly that my purpose is defined by my traumas, by my experiences and how I’ve dealt with them. As I can say to those around me, I know how you feel because I’ve been there, I catch a glimmer of why God has allowed this diagnosis, this pain, this trauma to be present in my life. I don’t always like it and I’ve railed against the actual experience of it, but in quieter moments, I do see a purpose.

I’m not one that believes cancer to be a gift or that cancer has made me a better person. What I do see is that cancer burned away the fluff and has forced me to focus on what really matters. Cancer has forced me to see differently. Cancer has refined me. As my dear friend Emily Garnett used to say, it’s the worst club with the best people.

22 thoughts on “Pain, Healing, and Purpose

  1. Abigail, thisis a wonderful post, and I thank you for it. This is my experience too, and you have valudated me today. I thank you for coming to my blog and reading my stuff. It meNs a lot to me. I apologise for not always reading yours but as you know, I am newly blind and therefore struggling to find my way around. But I can see that I am missing a lot. Your blog is great. Thankyou for this post. Much love to you.

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    1. I do appreciate the thought and the sentiment; at the same time, for those of us who are terminal, this sort of comment ends up feeling pretty dismissive. I try to believe the best and I’m only saying this to you so that you understand that it’s not the best way to connect or support someone dealing with the trauma of a serious or terminal illness.

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  2. I really enjoy reading your work and and so impressed with your outlook and your bravery. You validated for me my belief that my MBC dx allowed me to truly focus on what brings me the most joy in my life…my roles as wife and mother. Approaching my mid-50’s, this is a time where many women can question their passion, what their ‘next steps’ or next role will be. I feel a sense of gratitude in my knowing just who I am and where I’m meant to be be and put my energy.

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  3. Thank you for this post Abigail. I love your last thoughts. Some people seem to want to take our hardships and turn them into some kind of blessing. They aren’t blessings in and of themselves! Trials are painful and hard! But when we allow ourselves to grow and allow the difficult things in our lives to change our character in good ways, they become tools that shape us for the better. And ALL of the most amazing people I know have this in common: they have had incredibly difficult lives, but they refused to become hard or bitter and they used their experiences to reach out to others.

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  4. This is beautifully encouraging, especially about the healing. I think it is usually a slow process. Two things have helped me. I always have the love of my wife. Somehow we are always fighting FOR each other and supporting each other. The other concept that gets me through is my faith in God. To be honest though faith can change through trauma, and it did for me. I really took a beating. Recently though, meaning with the past couple of months, I have been renewed. I’m a little different now, but renewed and filled with hope and love.

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  5. Abigail, as a rather blaze 77yo I quite often just skip over you posts without taking much in. But you last two paras stopped me. We, almost always, only just catch a brief glimmer of what God’s purpose is in the trauma both serious and trivial that we endure. And I can agree totally that these things are sent to us as Gifts but rather as a way of opening our eyes to the troubles that others have. Regards, John

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