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People leave the COVID-19 assessment centre at the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto on March 24, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

What is truly essential in our lives?

Governments, as they inch toward lockdowns, have issued decrees that define essential services featuring some fun-to-debate distinctions – cannabis stores, yes, but vaping shops, no; hardware stores, but not clothing shops, and so on.

But these lists, assembled clumsily by bureaucrats, do not really tell us what is essential.

Rather, they reveal how much short-term inconvenience and economic pain politicians think we are willing to endure in the name of public health. (Not much, apparently, given that virtually everything except shopping malls and office jobs are deemed essential.)

Beyond politics, however, a pandemic is an unparalleled opportunity for us, individually and collectively, to ask and answer existential questions such as: What truly matters in our lives?

Normally, those gut-punch reflections are reserved for those facing catastrophic events such as a natural disaster, a house fire or a cancer diagnosis.

When life flashes before our eyes, it can be as illuminating as frightening.

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, for example, their world can be turned upside down. The future is suddenly uncertain. The treatment can be brutal, and not always successful.

As the coronavirus gnaws away at the world, as cancer does on an individual, we can actually learn a lot from the experiences of cancer patients.

A diagnosis can be stressful and emotional: Fear, insecurity, sadness, anger, shame, guilt, loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness are commonplace.

Sound familiar? It is the gamut of emotions the world is feeling today, thanks to the relentless onslaught of coronavirus news.

Cancer patients, in addition to their own worries, have to cope with the emotional responses of family and friends, and confront significant potential changes. How will they adapt to changes in employment (temporary or permanent job loss), financial effects such as loss of income plus additional expenses, new family dynamics, a scaled-back social life, altered interpersonal relations and loss of self-esteem?

Again, many people isolated in their homes in these uncertain economic times, even though they do not have life-threatening conditions, are nonetheless trying to cope with these realities.

The treatments for cancer can be brutal. Surgery involves cutting off body parts, a mutilation not everyone wants to endure. Radiation therapy is a burning laser beam. Chemotherapy is the ingestion of poison that kills cancerous cells and does a fair bit of collateral damage.

Collateral damage is also what people are feeling from measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus, such as lockdowns and quarantines.

We need to think of these acts as cancer treatments: some short-term pain that, we hope, confers long-term survival benefits.

Like most cancer patients, the country and the world will survive coronavirus.

Like cancer patients, we will likely also never be the same again. At least we can hope so.

Cancer patients invariably learn a lot about themselves, about their dreams and priorities. Many, most perhaps, find physical and mental strength they never knew they had.

A surprisingly large number of cancer survivors come out the other end of the experience seeing it as beneficial. Not something they would wish anyone, but revelatory.

They emerge from the months of anxiety, suffering and uncertainty feeling a greater sense of purpose and a new-found appreciation for life.

They do not sweat the little things. They appreciate family time a lot more. They step away from the hamster wheel of work, or slow down. They bask in the second chance.

Imagine if, collectively, we embraced this global pandemic as an opportunity for that sort of transformation.

What if, instead of stampeding back to our old ways, we decided to do things differently?

Telecommuting and remote meetings have become necessities. What if we embraced this and no longer needed to rush lemming-like into the central core of cities every morning?

What if we used the collapse of the traditional energy sector as a chance to invest significantly in cleaner, more sustainable technologies – to tackle climate change for real?

The pandemic is making us realize how much we rely on the service industry, from grocery-store cashiers, to restaurant cooks to personal support workers. What if we started paying them a decent living wage?

Cancer patients know as well as anyone that trauma shatters our assumptions about ourselves, that staring death in the face can force us to rethink our values.

This cancer eating at the world’s economy need not be debilitating. It can be a life-altering blessing, too.

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