You probably remember me. I was the fat kid in elementary school – the chubby preteen who was teased and mocked and sometimes smacked; the brainy boy whose academic achievement only added to his awkwardness.
While I eventually slimmed down by the time I got to high school, shedding both pounds and social ostracism, the traumatic association forged between excess body weight and feeling like an outsider has remained to this day. If my stomach distends even slightly, as it is wont to do at my upper middle age, I become obsessed with exercising harder, eating healthier and making sure I never, ever go back to those painful days.
Then I got cancer.
One of the first things I noticed, even before my diagnosis, was that I was losing weight. It maxed out at just a few kilos, but I was worried – I hadn’t weighed this little in 40 years.
I reversed my usual eating patterns and started downing as much as I could: double bowls of cereal in the morning, seconds on everything at lunch, lots of chicken. My weight stabilized after I started chemotherapy, then slowly began to climb again.
My cancer eventually went into remission; my weight sensitivity did not. It was as if I needed something to grouse about.
This went on for a few months – I’m too heavy, I’m too thin – until it hit me just how ridiculous I was being.
I was in remission from cancer, for crying out loud.
That minimally protruding belly was not a curse. It was a sign that I’m still alive. I should be embracing the feeling of skin-on-shirt, because the alternative would be a whole lot worse.
One of the most unsettling aspects of having a chronic cancer like mine – one that is destined to come back, then go away again with treatment, then return anew, repeating over a lifetime – is that you really have no idea what’s coming next.
You start treatment with statistics saying you’re likely to go into remission after three months, four at the most. But you also know that, in some percent of patients, the cancer will transform into something more aggressive. Which one will you be?
I’ve got a plethora of new aches and pains as a result of my treatment – will they dissipate someday, or am I stuck with them as part of the bargain I made with the toxic cocktail devil that successfully shrunk my tumors?
How long will this remission last? A year? A decade? Every body is different and science can’t make such granular predictions yet.
I want to climb mountains again, work out with the tension level on the elliptical machine set to 11 like I used to, instead of the easy 4 I’ve got it on now. I’m tired of feeling fatigued at the end of the day. I’m ready to move on, but my cancer and recovery have other plans.
I DESPERATELY want to let go of these and many other expectations. But can I? Cancer or not, I’m still me with the same brain chemistry, the same disquietudes from before I got sick.
The answer appears to be yes, I can learn. It just might not be because of the cancer.
Jonathan Rauch is the author of the recently published book The Happiness Curve. Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, had fallen into the doldrums in his 40s. He had no idea why. He had a successful career, a solid relationship, his health was good and so were his finances.
Rauch’s book, based on research first done by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald in 2008, shows that our lifelong happiness is U-shaped. We’re happy as kids, then become less satisfied as we progress through our 20s and 30s, hit a real low in our late 40s, before it turns around in our 50s. From there, there’s a steady rise in satisfaction until we’re well into our 80s.
That’s good news for people like me: follicular lymphoma is most frequently diagnosed at age 55 and up.
The happiness curve seems to be universal, traversing borders. (The researchers looked at people in 72 countries.) Among the forward-looking findings: older people feel less stress and regret, dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions.
Competing for status becomes less important, as well. As we get older, Rauch writes, “You hear people say, ‘I don’t feel the need to check those boxes anymore.’”
Science journalist Barbara Strauch came to a similar conclusion in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain.
By the time we get to our 50s, Strauch told NPR’s Morning Edition, “We get higher scores on all our tests in a whole range of areas, including inductive reasoning, verbal memory, vocabulary – we’re better in that span than we were in our 20s.”
Moreover, we can size up a situation and “get to the gist of an argument faster,” she says. “The brain sees connections; it sees the full picture.”
A faster-thinking brain that’s more satisfied and less preoccupied with expectations might be just what I need to finally learn to let go; to prioritize and focus on what’s really important.
Getting cancer may not turn out to be the actual source of this life lesson. But if it’s a resurgent belly bulge that prods my thinking in a happier direction, I can be satisfied with that, too.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.
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