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Cancer kicks your butt, but it’s also a powerful lesson on appreciation

“Tough as old shoe leather” and other laughable compliments from loved ones help get me through tough times.

The writer (right) and her daughter, Glynne, leave the hospital after the writer’s last chemotherapy session.From Carol Alfred

My collision with cancer struck like a flaming bolt out of the blue. But should it have? Both my parents wrestled with cancer in middle age, as did other relatives. Cancer killed my father. So when my kids reached their late teens, I began calmly pointing out the lack of longevity on both sides of my family. How, then, was I blindsided by my own diagnosis? Why did the words “late-stage ovarian cancer” shock as much as terrify me?

The truth is, I had never really contemplated such a diagnosis. No, I had blithely la-la-la-ed my way through life without considering it. Understandable, maybe, but a double whammy when the hard truth hit. With or without the surprise factor, any diagnosis of late-stage cancer is visceral — it assaults the soul as viciously as the cancer cells savage the body.


Yet, I am discovering a flip side: Cancer jolts your entire being to attention. Then it focuses your attention on what truly matters in life, on how desperately you want to keep living, and on how nebulous your future is now and always has been. Cancer streamlines, prioritizes, and cuts to the chase. It slices through the small stuff to expose what is truly precious, leaving no doubt that what is no match for who.

Yes, cancer kicks your physical and spiritual butt, but it is also a powerful lesson on appreciation. It draws you closer to those who matter; it sweetens every sweet moment. I am deeply grateful to my family and friends for their loving support, and to my outstanding medical team led by Dr. Elise Everett.

I also have found that cancer is not without humor, much of which comes from expressions of support. Like mini pep talks, most contain a “compliment.” Though heartfelt and sincere, some of these “compliments” are laughable. For example, soon after my diagnosis, my sister texted my daughter, assuring Glynne that I would beat cancer because I am “tougher than old shoe leather.” How lucky that Glynne and I received this compliment while driving together! When we stopped laughing, I called my sister, identifying myself as Old Shoe Leather — giving her a good laugh, too.


My brother soon proved he is my sister’s blood relative when he touted my resilience by comparing me to the daylilies he had dug up, smothered in damp newspaper and plastic, slapped in a box, and shipped 2,000 miles to Colorado during a blistering heat wave. My sister had to soak the bleached, parched mass for two days before planting. My brother crowed I was as hardy as those long-suffering bulbs; like them, I would survive.

Several times after I received good news, my daughter cheered me on as a tough old you-know-what. Mind you, this is the daughter who drove more than 200 miles to sit with me during every long chemo day, lasting over six hours; stayed with me for the nine-hour surgery day; and visited me every day of my five-day hospital stay. She cleaned, cuddled, and ran errands. Self-appointed supervisor of my health routines, she fiercely ensured I took my medication and ate and drank enough. My response to her compliment? “It takes one to know one, hon.”

My husband wins the prize for Most Conventional (But Funny) Compliment. Soon after I lost my hair, I would find him staring at me with an intensity I found unsettling. Finally, I called him on it. He responded by oh-so-gently rubbing my head while murmuring, “You know, you have a perfect head. It’s the perfect shape. You could be a model.” He dubbed me his “model wife.” Not model as in exemplary, but model as in runways and magazine covers — at least as far as my head shape. So far from how I see myself!


I find these words of support and love as touching as they are funny. They are words I treasure, words that demonstrate a sweet — even humorous — side to the bitter reality of cancer.

Carol Alfred is a writer in Monkton, Vermont. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story: Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.