The Paradox of Cancer, the Paradox of Life

The Paradox of Cancer, the Paradox of Life

A Lump in the Road column
“It was my year off from the world,” a nurse told me when I was in the Emergency Room with side effects from chemo. He had had cancer too, and it took him a year to get through treatment and recover. 
His manner was calm, unhurried, a decided contrast from the panicky vibes I picked up from others in the room. He seemed methodical, at peace. 

I was too weak to respond, too tired even to think straight, but I heard his nugget of wisdom and filed it away to ponder later. Little did I know at the time, but the reality of my cancer journey was going to mirror a greater paradox of life, one I started to become aware of during my foggy interaction that day.  

I learned that what we often think to be true may be the polar opposite of reality.

My cancer kicked in on New Year’s Day, an easy date to remember, and an easy spot from which to log the milestones of this winding journey. At times, I looked and felt so sick that death seemed imminent.

But during the first part of my chemo, I looked healthier than I ever had. Many people told me I never looked better, and my husband said I was smoking hot, but in fact I was the unhealthiest I’d ever been in my life. “We’re going to bring your body as close to death as we can,” one doctor told me. “And that’s how we’re going to make you well.”

Now that’s a weird paradox, isn’t it?

How could people think I looked so improved when my body was engaged in war? Underneath my shiny, stylish “hair” was a head bald from toxic, cancer-fighting medicine. Yes, my wig ensured that every hair was in place, and my lack of confidence prompted me to labor over makeup like I was ready to walk the red carpet, but underneath my looser clothes was a frame that could barely ingest the nutrition it needed.

While my body slimmed down, I was enjoying chocolate milkshakes, the only food I found really appealing. In fact, to say those milkshakes were appealing is an understatement. I loved them, loved the whipped creme on top, the guilty pleasure I took in knowing I could have as much as I wanted. What 49-year-old woman gets to do that and still lose weight? My better looking, apparently, “hot” self, milkshakes and all, in the midst of my unprecedented unhealthiness, wasn’t the only paradox that hit me.

When I got my diagnosis, I had a lot to learn, fast. 

Medical people used words I’d never heard of and discussed treatment options I couldn’t pronounce. Insurance companies denied medicine I didn’t know I needed and tried to delay medical procedures that I didn’t know existed. Ironically, the more I learned, the more I realized the enormity of my ignorance. Although apparently I looked fabulous, I felt like crap, and my brain did not work.

So, while I struggled with this feeling of incompetence, with my ongoing failure to remember terms that would have such an impact on my life, I remembered still another of life’s great inconsistencies, one I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur. It’s that the more we fail, the more likely we are to succeed.

Babies learn that lesson early, probably before they’re even aware of the effort they’re making. When they take those first wobbly steps before a face plant, it’s hard to watch without feeling charmed and inspired. They try, they fail, they try again. They fail again. They even seem to enjoy the process. And eventually, they get it. 

So I keep trying, and I keep failing. But every once in a while, there’s a spark, a small success. And those moments keep me going when I feel discouraged about my ratio of successes to failures.

An instructor once told me that no matter how difficult it is, life is beautiful. Then she said, no matter how beautiful it is, life is difficult.

So when I finally had the time to ponder the wisdom that ER nurse demonstrated that day, the only person in the room who radiated calm amidst the tumult, I thought about cancer as a paradox. Because now that my emergency is over, I realize that my deepest moments of peace are tied, inextricably, to the disease – to the chaos, fear, hope, love, angst, and endurance – that I started learning about in earnest that fateful New Year’s Day.


Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.



  1. Joellen Desautels says:

    This is just lovely and so well-written. I love 2 things especially; “the more we fail, the more likely we are to succeed” and it is so true. Pick yourself up and get back in the game, with more wisdom.

    And I love, “the year off from the world” quote. So interesting. How much more do you appreciate our daily gifts because you have had this lesson on slowing down and observing? Perhaps this has taken you to another level with your writing, or your relationships. Every life lesson has its blessings to pair with it. You certainly are making the most of these blessings! Beautiful work, Nancy.
    Joellen Desautels

    • Nancy Brier says:

      What I’ve learned through my experience with cancer are lessons not about disease but about life. And I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to share those lessons through this platform and others. Thanks for reading my thoughts and for your kind words. It warms my heart.

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