6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

by Rachel Pieh Jones on November 16, 2018

I have cancer.

The first time I said it out loud, I actually had to shout it into my phone. Like shout. As in, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” And since I am anti-exclamation points, let the fact that I just used, like, a bajillion, communicate how loudly I shouted it.

I shouted, “I have cancer,” because I was trying to tell my husband the news.

He is not hard of hearing.

He also was not in the vicinity when Dr. D called.

I was in my car. He was not in the car with me. He wasn’t in the city with me. He wasn’t in the state. He wasn’t on the continent.

See, I got cancer while my husband and I are living on opposite sides of the planet for a season. Don’t worry about us, we’re all good. Going on twenty years of a great marriage. But our twins graduated and sixteen years ago, when we moved to Somalia, I told my husband, “When they graduate, I’m going to spend at least their first semester of college in the US.”

So here we are, sixteen years later.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow.

Here Community. I have had to learn to ask for help and to accept help when it is offered. Why is this so hard? It shouldn’t be. My ‘here’ community for now is in the US and it is a community I haven’t relied on in physically present ways in a long time. Now, they are bringing me meals and driving me around and dropping off bags of goodies and giving me cash gifts for massages or books(!). The generosity of intimate family and friends, as well as near-strangers is breath-taking.

There Community. We have the incredible privilege of a ‘there’ community, which right now means an internationally located one. Usually, these two communities are reversed. But for now, over there, people are caring for my husband while we are apart. They are bringing him meals and having him over for game nights, celebrating his birthday, and checking in on him. And they are sending messages to me of encouragement. Kindness, compassion, practical care. People abroad know that we are all abroad without our closest families or friends and they step up. Local people and other expats. They move in and hold our fear and grief and it is precious.

Surrounded. I have people praying for me literally all over the world. Which means at all times of the day and night, too. I have people from all manner of faith traditions praying for me. I find this so comforting. I feel it, I feel like the inside of a Twinkie, the creamy middle. I feel weak and squishy and like, if I weren’t surrounded, I’d spread out all over the place in a goopy mess. But the prayers of my Muslim and Christian and Jewish and no-faith people are holding me together, holding me in place. I got a prayer message from a dear Somali friend the other day and nearly cried. This is such a profound and unique gift.

Thankfulness. A lot of thankfulness has to do with perspective. I have so much to be thankful for. Hospitals with no wild animals wandering through them. A knowledgeable well-trained surgeon. Fully stocked pharmacies with medications that are not expired. The timing of this adventure. Clean drinking water. An abundance of nutritious food. Toilets that flush on the first try. Hot showers. Fifteen years in a developing-world country has radically changed my perspective.

Identification. I don’t know what it is like to be a refugee or to see my country decimated by war. I don’t know what it is like to watch my children go hungry or to bury a loved one who left too young. But every bit of pain, when it is not ignored but faced, thins out the dividing lines of race, religion, wealth, politics. Like the Grinch, our hearts can grow three sizes in one day, if we choose empathy. When we make space for our own pain, space opens up, almost magically, to hold the pain of others, too.

Joy. I’m not going to say look at the poor, they’re so happy. But I will say that people who have suffered, and that always includes poor people, can develop reservoirs of joy that the healthy, strong, and powerful will never know. It is a ferocious and subversive joy that refuses to be smothered by loss or pain and because of where we live and who we choose to love, I have seen this with my own eyes. I can draw strength from that example.

What are ways that living abroad while going through trials has brought unique blessing into your life and home?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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