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This is Not a Sad Story

sunriseThis is not a sad story. This is a story about life.

I was blown away by the response to my last post, and appreciative that so many stayed with me as I described a really difficult experience without trying to fix it, without trying to fix me.

I started to think about the different ways people react to hearing about another’s pain. We may think, “Phew, at least my life’s not that bad.” Or we may think, “Hmm… that sucks, but so-and-so person I know has it much worse.”

These are both statements of comparison, and it is human nature to compare. We look at another person and think, “Am I better or worse? Do I have more or less?” When we like how we fare in the comparison we feel boosted up, prideful. When we don’t, we feel small, ashamed.

But when I talk about my pain, do you really need to have cancer to understand what I mean? Have we not all felt pain? Have we not all suffered? So many people wrote me to say my last post resonated with them, even though they don’t have cancer, because they have been lonely, or ill, or had physical pain.

And likewise, does it matter that others in the world have suffered more than you? Does that really take away your own suffering?

We are put on this planet with a guarantee that at times we will hurt, and at times it will be really, really bad. Instead of getting stuck in comparison, can we gain strength from the fact that we are more similar than different? That we are united in the common experience of being human?

I have cancer, but I’m realizing this is not just a story about cancer. And I am sad, but this is not just a sad story.

This is it! This is what life is like. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s shit. I’ll still go to bed tonight (probably too late), wake up in the morning, and hope the next day is a little bit better than the last.


Photo by Chris Betcher


  1. “This is it! This is what life is like. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s shit. I’ll still go to bed tonight (probably too late), wake up in the morning, and hope the next day is a little bit better than the last.”

    This is told beautifully. I try just to see it in a completely different context. Am alone with three small children and often come to my limits and treat them not as patient as I should. Hope they forget about it and give me every day a new opportunity …

  2. David Scheinman says:

    Life IS an obstacle. Once we accept that, we moan and groan a bit less. Subsequently happiness is a side effect of overcoming obstacles. If we dodge and shirk them Elena, we become your therapy patients.

    I look forward to your comments each week. Your cancer is certainly making you a better and more empathetic therapist. We all need to get scuffed up a bit in order to become better parents, therapists, and leaders. Too bad yours is a real outlier. Jeez Louise, getting cancer at your age is really uncommon. But clearly it happens, and unfortunately your genome drew the short straw.

    This will help make you an even better therapist once you hang your shingle. Get well soon and keep up the inspiring — and sometimes gritty posts. I appreciate the sometimes film noire effect you create. You certainly have grit — a characteristic that trumps almost everything.

  3. We hope so too, that today is a little bit better than yesterday — for you, Elna!

  4. I was talking to a wise friend of mine about circumstances. He said, “Circumstances do not make the person, they reveal the person to themselves.”

    Because of your writings, Elana, you have graciously shared your revelations with all of us. I hope you are often able to see through the sadness at what a magnificent person has been revealed!

    • I disagree with that slightly in the sense that fleeting adversity can reveal to a person themselves in an unfavourable light, but because they get better quickly, they can move on and almost forget what happened. However that same person might then get something more chronic in nature, which forces them to become more introspective and shine a light on their flaws. They then gradually come to terms with it and try to become a ‘better’ person. Alot of the time you’re forced to become one because if you don’t evolve and change who you are, it will all become too much and you won’t last the course. That’s why alot of cancer patients hate it when people call them ‘brave’. because they think to themselves “what choice do I have but to brave?” When you have a chronic problem – adapt or perish.

      So I think the actual circumstances (the nature and length) do make the person because I think every human has the capacity to grow if they are confronted with situations that call for growth to move forward.

      Also a person can have a great attitude at the start and become worn down by the end, whereas with some people it’s vice-versa. It often comes down to circumstances at the time adversity strikes.

      I get what you’re saying though. Some people just handle things better than others, and have that in-built stoicism.

  5. I think you’re awesome and I love reading you’re posts…..

  6. You are singing your song- one post after another, Elana. I am so grateful to be in your audience! I am becoming a stronger and wiser person because of what I am learning from you. Whenever I see a post from you, everything goes on hold so I can step in to the classroom of many lessons (often re-reading multiple times to make sure I didn’t miss anything). I especially appreciate the sweet opportunity you give to all of us to be connected to you, to one another and to ourselves through your experience. Thank you.

  7. Thankyou Elana,
    I have recently come to the awareness that ALL moments are lessons.
    And I have decided to receive them with gratitude…. most of the time….

    Iam happy to have been brought to you and your story… you are a light that
    shines back to me…. It has helped me to see that behind the darkness there is
    always a light..

    Love to you Elana

  8. So well said! I have tried to express the same when people talk to me about my cancer. It is what it is, definitely not what I wanted but the rest of my life is filled with so many blessings that I just focus on those. Again, I admire your courage and how you are willing to share your journey with us.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    You are truly an amazing young woman. An inspiration to many. This whole experience will have caused a very painful ‘pruning’ process, but MUCH new growth as a result. Just breathe…..

  10. Hi Elena,

    You understand so much at such a young age. Remarkable really and a true gift or even I would say talent. I often think of your words, “we are more similar than different” in the context of my own life and my relationship with others. But unlike you it took me a little longer to reduce the “noise” to really see this basic truth. I wish I had embraced it sooner as you have. k

  11. “Instead of getting stuck in comparison, can we gain strength from the fact that we are more similar than different? ” Good stuff. Now teach us to focus on this….

  12. Carmelann says:

    Dearest Elana, you don’t know me but first I need to ask your forgiveness. When you announced your cancer diagnosis I ran like a scared mouse. “I can’t do that again.” Recently home sick with the flu and worked up enough courage to see “how you were doing”. You have given my cancer and chemo (1998) a voice. Hold on to the hypersensitivity. It actually works after a while. I am not going to fill the page with all that bullshit. (Love the cuss words, I’m from Brooklyn). Just keep writing. For you and all the rest of us. Peace.

  13. Astrid Maria says:

    Hello again, Elena.
    Being with things as they are, it is not just a life skill but an art, I think. One of the hardest things in my study to become a spiritual counselor, as I started four years ago, was to even begin letting go of my need to fix. Only slowly did I realise, that perhaps the most important thing people can share, is sometimes – if not often- the truth. Not necessarily as a starting point for advice, directions, finding road signs, but as it is. I even discovered that the best gift I myself can get in times of trouble is often exactly the same thing: an open ear, an open heart. As readers of your blog, we can send you love, prayers if appropriate…. but like you said before, we cannot promise you a miracle. But we are witnesses to the life story you are telling. I hope to have lost some of my ‘triggerhappiness’ towards fixing. But hoping it means something, I think I am not the only one offering my presence as a listener to your personal history as you record it: trying to be as open in hearing it as you are in sharing it, respecting you and your words, not coming to reassure myself through comparison or reassure you through words I cannot back up, but sitting with you while reading your words the best I can, even if I am on the other side of the ocean. Sincerely, Astrid Maria

  14. Carol Warren says:

    Everyone has a story, some of us just happen to have a cancer story. Like you said…it’s just life. Be well.

  15. I, too, am in pain. Everyday is different. Some days I hardly notice it. Others its all I can do not to obsess about it. I have Lupus and chronic and acute pain are simply part of the package. I take all the medicines I can stand and some days its just not enough. But here’s what I’ve decided to believe after many years of this….there’s a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is present, it can be harsh and unforgiving, but I can keep my head in the “now” about it. Suffering is when the pain takes on a haunted life of its own and it feels like it might consume me, present and future. Pain sucks. Suffering sucks the life out of me. My doctor and I have an agreement after all these years – I will put up with pain, do what I can to cope, and keep on keeping on. But when I hit suffering we have to dig deep and do something. Those somethings are getting harder to come by without taking on side-effects that make me miserable. So my definition of “pain” might be upgraded and my tolerance for suffering may have to increase. In the meantime, my”Pill Mantra” -the words I repeat as I pop each handful of pills into my mouth – is “For Ease, Grace and Simplicity.” Those are the real healers. I have stopped asking for strength. I don’t want to have to be strong. I don’t want to feel like a warrior. I don’t want to fight. I want to endure and rise above. I want things – this Lupus – to be easy, to be simple, so that I can gracefully slip away from suffering.
    I wish you the same.

  16. Your story isn’t really about cancer. It’s about the emotions we all will go through in life (or went already), sooner or later; the feeling of being scared, vulnerable, helpless, hurt. You have the talent to put it into powerful words where we all can find ourselves in.
    Honestly I don’t believe that crap, that you have to get something positive out of it. It’s a shitty time and there will be better times ahead.

  17. Beautiful! This is it, this is life! Sometimes, people will tell me my story is depressing, but I challenge that. It is a sad story, but within and through that sadness is hope. And it’s my job to light my own hope. Thank you for your courage! Justine

  18. Beautiful writing…as always. Reminds me of this Italian proverb:
    “After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.”

  19. You’re so right. So right on. Since discovering that you exsisted I’ve looked forward to Tuesdays! You have so much insight and everything you write hits home for me. We couldn’t have more different life circumstances at this point but I just get what you have to say. Cancer sucks and I wish it would fuck off forever but I’m so glad I discovered who you are and am honored and intrigued to find out more about you and what you have to say. Thank you.

  20. We are in the circumstances of our lives, but we can choosing not to be OF them…and when we do that we give ourselves the level of detachment we need to observe, refine, correct and jump back in ready to get to a better place.

    A long way of saying you’re a star Elana! 🙂

  21. I’d meant to comment on your previous post, When in Doubt…, but got distracted and pulled away by the thousand-and-one demands of daily life. What you wrote resonated and stayed with me because it reminded me of how things played out through the two or three months following my cancer diagnosis. First month was an explosion of mail ~ sooo many get-well cards. And phone calls. And flowers. And visitors. The second month brought meals, ironic since chemo was killing my sense of taste and the radiation targeting my periaortic region made my gut super-finicky about retaining food. The third month brought more visits to the hospital, a blood transfusion, and my husband’s botched attempts at making dinner. But not a lot of cards or visitors. Most people had moved on to the Next Big Thing. I noticed, but mostly felt too sick to care .. besides, my family and closest friends stuck by me throughout the year. You’re in my thoughts and, occasionally, when you pop into my mind, I send a prayer and some positive energy out into the universe for you. Much as I do for my friend whose teenage daughter is battling depression and trying to get her meds sorted out. And for my recently-widowed neighbor. And a former colleague who’s expecting her first child and for another who recently had knee-replacement surgery. You got it .. this IS what life is like. Also, thank you for sharing the Buddhist philosophy about the difference between pain and suffering; I’ll be trying to suffer less often in the future. Hugs to you….

  22. Elana,
    I read your posts each week and just want to thank you for making the effort to write these. I also had cancer – 10 years ago, stage 3 breast cancer. What you are saying here is so true about life…some great days – some are just shit…but the ability to set your mind and attitude with “I’ll try this again tomorrow; each day is a new start and experience” is the key to living with hope and meaning, I believe.

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