What My Stage IV Cancer Taught Me, by Kate Bowler

When she was 35, Kate Bowler had all she ever wanted: she was a college professor, married to her high-school sweetheart and raising their baby boy. Then, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. As her world flipped upside down, Kate wrote a memoir, Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. (What a title.) This week, I spoke to her about nine things she has learned…

1. Everyone is human.
The realization that something genuinely awful could happen to me, that it could happen to anyone, was the most humbling part of this: I’m not the exception to the rule that bad things happen. The silver lining was how it made me feel connected to people around me. Once you let your guard down, you start noticing humility everywhere. I felt like I figured out the secret to the universe: everyone is trying so hard to keep it together. Suddenly, I felt tremendous compassion. That became an entry point into discovering how fragile and beautiful everyone’s life is.

2. You don’t need to be cheerful all the time.
At first, I was great at putting on a front. I was so f-ing cheerful. I’d wake up at 4 a.m., answer all my emails with as many happy emoticons as possible, then fly to a hospital in Atlanta; by 8:30 a.m., I was in blood work, which is THE LITERAL WORST, and there I am, basically whistling. I joyfully received the news of my cancer. It was a nightmare, but I felt like I had to stay positive and prove that everything was okay. Still, I kept hoping, there must be a place where I can just relax. Then a nurse sat down beside me and quietly shared her deepest pain about losing a child — not as a burden, but as a bridge — like, you’re not on the other side of glass. We’re in this together.

3. Stupid presents are good.
My friends and relatives each figured out their love languages. Maybe their thing was totally stupid presents. I was totally into Smencils, so my friend Mandy would bring me weird office supplies. People fed me for over a year; food just kept showing up. Other people who were terrible with words would drive me to appointments in complete silence, and that felt so good. My friend Abbey said — and she was definitely lying — “I really like to clean as a workout, so I’m just going to come on Wednesdays, I hope that’s okay with you.” I needed that so badly.

4. Embrace simple pleasures, like The Bachelor.
We bought a used 31-foot Airstream trailer from the 1980s; it looks like my childhood, just short of popcorn ceilings. It’s in our yard, and we’re taking it on little trips so we don’t have to do other stuff, like laundry or becoming more invested in sea salt. I don’t want to take time to be fancier, I want to be more basic. I also spend an Olympic amount of time in the bath. My mantra is “don’t be above it.” I’m not above The Bachelor. For two years, I wore yoga pants, even to faculty meetings. Whatever makes the world a little gentler so I can do the harder stuff. I want to give myself some grace.

5. Each day has a peak moment.
I think differently about time. Before my diagnosis, I was always trying to get somewhere else. Now I try so hard to be present. There’s a moment every day, when you realize, this is it, this is the mountaintop. My little kid is looking at me with his giant oversized head, and he puts his wet hand on my cheek and says something funny like, I love you more than bananas. And I think, I peaked today! Ahh, that kid, that is my dream. And that head is way too big. Every day we’re trying to get his sweatshirt off, and it’s always too hard.

6. Love is in the details.
Universal platitudes — like “everything happens for a reason” — are so unsatisfying because everything beautiful is specific. Noticing the particularities of your wonderful, totally ridiculous life is the best part. My husband’s eyes and hair are the same color, 100% the same color, and it sounds super blah, but I love it. This is the crappy bungalow I live in, that’s the lawn I’m never going to seed in the fall, this is my life! If you don’t notice life in its specificity, you’re not in it. You’re somewhere else. You’re somewhere else until you’re asked to trade it out, and then all you want are the specifics.

7. It’s okay to feel mad at your body.
Illness makes you feel like you’re stuck in an alien form; I want to crawl out of my skin. I get claustrophobic. How am I trapped in this thing that’s going to kill me? And when you’re in pain, you feel completely alone in the universe. It’s pure isolation. I’ll never forget at time when I was wheeling into surgery and suddenly remembered a poem from college: ‘But one by one we must all file on / through the narrow aisles of pain.’ Having friends find ways to break through that, that is the gift. Embrace anything that shows you that your body is good. A cool breeze. A warm beverage in your hands. Facial products. They remind you that you’re a person, and that helps you fight.

8. Your children will always remember you.
All the time, I’m staring at my son and thinking, am I in there? Have I poured enough of myself into you? We’ve also been trying to create traditions. My mom was so cute: she used to make us apple fritters every time the snow stayed on the ground — the snow had to stick! I’m teaching my son to match pitch, so every morning we sing to the coffee grinder at the top of our lungs and try to match pitch. And every night after dinner, we choose a song and dance.

9. Life is beautiful.
Some friends felt uncomfortable at first because my illness reminded them of their own mortality. And I understand that. I don’t want to be the anti-Oprah who is like, you’re going to die, you’re going to die, look under your chair!!! How to spend the years is the great challenge we all get faced with; mine is just more acute. If we’re fragile, if we’re finite, then what do we love? How do we be brave?

Thank you so much, Kate. You are wonderful.

P.S. What to say to someone in grief, and how to write a condolence note. Also, wholeness vs. happiness.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo. As-told-to interview by Joanna Goddard.)