Comment: People often ask about the impact that going through cancer had on my relationships with people around me. As I would expect the many other people who have found themselves in the same position as myself and those around me did would agree, the experience is a profoundly uniting and bond-strengthening one.
So much so that often when meeting families who are rallying to support a loved one who is facing this disease, or any other, we organically note the precious times of genuine depth among the hardship and suffering, moments that presumably would have been missed otherwise. You wouldn't wish suffering on a loved one, but nor would you wish these special connections away, and stories of laughter and tighter-knit links than ever forged prior seem to be a common theme.
The cause of this is something I've had plenty of time to ponder, but it isn't something I had "solved" for myself until just last week, as I battled my way across the South Island in the Kathmandu Coast to Coast. Much like in multisport, what I lack in solid qualification I make up for in naïve determination, so bear with me while I share my theory: shared suffering creates vulnerability, vulnerability creates trust, trust creates real connection.
Let me explain. In October 2015, I underwent two major life changes. Yes, I was diagnosed with a highly aggressive cancer, but far more exciting than that, ten days prior I courted my first ever girlfriend.
You can picture my great disappointment as I found myself in the unenviable position of having to call my freshly minted girlfriend into my hospital room to, as I had deemed the most reasonable course of action, wish her the very best and excuse her from this terrible mess which she had not signed up for a week and a half prior. I did just that, and after explaining the predicament in which I had found myself, or I suppose, in retrospect,
"we" had found ourselves, told her that it was going to get very messy very fast and that she ought to run for the hills, for which I nor anybody else could blame her.
In Jemima's hallmark stubborn determination with which I am now familiar, she said no. That we would get through it together. And without a pause for second thought, we embarked on a metaphorical journey, the start line marked by the all-the-more-poignant literal journey to the ward in which I was treated, as she walked alongside my bed being wheeled through the hospital.
It goes without saying that the next few months featured a series of unfortunate events which you wouldn't introduce to a relationship that quickly if you had any choice in the matter. I lost about 15kg, and every single hair on my body, including the ones I now deem most valuable: eyelashes and eyebrows. In return I gained sporadic crippling nausea, utter exhaustion, and an uneasy reality of uncertainty. I was, by definition, vulnerable- physically frail, weak, bald, and quite honestly visually shocking. I was not, on the other hand, the person Jem had signed up for.
A month into our relationship she had seen my at the lowest I will (hopefully) ever get. Was this all rainbows and butterflies for me? I think not. The shame of feeling a burden is one thing, but keeping in mind my youth, the self-consciousness was another dilemma all together. For her, the fear and uncertainty left her in a position of vulnerability I can't imagine.
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Regardless, there was no escape for either of us: this built the foundation of our relationship, and we were immediately drawn closer together than some couples ever are in their much longer relationships, I think. Our shared suffering created vulnerability, this forced vulnerability created trust, that trust created an unnaturally powerful connection from the outset. Long story short, we're still together four and a half years later, unsurprisingly I would argue. This is far from the only example - I could give examples of family, friends, doctors, nurses, anyone who I was forced to lean on and be vulnerable to in this time. The formula holds true in each case.
In simultaneous stark contrast (of health) and familiarity (of condition) to my previous physical situation, I witnessed this same phenomenon in action again last weekend as I battled my way through the Coast to Coast, the 243km multisport race across New Zealand. Endurance sport, for me at least, is embarked upon solely for that element of suffering. I'm fascinated by testing human boundaries and venturing as far as possible from the safe and comfortable daily life we typically inhabit. Regardless of whether my fellow competitors are like me in that they seek the suffering or not, it finds us all one way or another at some point.
These bonds beg to be made at the toughest times; the moments when the knowledge of exactly how each other is hurting opens up a sense of vulnerability that begs a connection. Sharing some water with a stranger who has run dry far from an aid station; sharing a chuckle with another as we discuss the 'c-word' which shan't be named aloud, lest it summon it - cramp; hugging another, who is just as sweaty and foul smelling as I presumably was, as we crossed over the finish line. All simply because we have suffered together, bonded together.
These bonds are upspoken, but by goodness they are powerfully felt. As I headed through the airport, about to board a plane home and fly effortlessly straight over the beautiful and challenging terrain I had scrambled across days earlier, I ran into two sets of two fellow competitors, proudly identified by their race memorabilia. Never met them before or since, but we barely said hello before we bearhugged, grinned, congratulated each other. Nothing short of mates, all thanks to a challenge conquered in unison.
I would argue that suffering is an inherently positive thing - I'll defend that position another day. But at the very least, and if nothing else, it is a doorway to powerful connections, built upon the most honest aspects of humanity - vulnerability and trust. Perhaps that is why I do events like this, perhaps it is why we should all suffer together, not apart.