Well, well, well…
You can do a lot in 18 years. A whole person can go from baby to adult, for instance. Eighteen years ago today, I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer and given some pretty bleak odds to beat it. But here I still am.
It’s oddly surreal that this anniversary often falls on a day where there’s fallout from an election, people combing over wins and losses. There was an actual Presidential election the day I was diagnosed in 2000, and it didn’t end in a result for months. It was a very unsettling period for many people, especially for me and my family, learning our new language and leaping into the battleground that is treatment and surviving and parenting-while-very-ill. I measured wins and losses differently during that time.
Some big wins came from community. Our parish school positively rallied and got the kids where they needed to be, cheered for them at grade-school basketball games I could not attend, brought us food, even put a freezer in our basement to keep the food close at hand, and extended care and inclusion over Easter Break, where many of our neighborhood families caravaned to Destin, Florida for much needed white sand and salt-water therapy. It was touch-and-go, and that community carried us — they carried us.
Wins came from family, particularly my husband who painted our bedroom TWICE during that time because I felt the wall color was sickening. You guys. That’s not how it works, but that’s how it felt, and we ended up with Cloverdale paint called Brighton Beach, because Neil Simon — why not. My sister took me to the Tribe’s Spring Training, such a bucket-list thing for me. People are so greaty-great, and seeing kindness and patience and care unfold day after day month after month was promising. Putting someone-in-need first is a pretty strong model for living well, for all parties.
Coworkers made Christmas happen. Friends made days slide by. Love and laughter helped when things were scary. My seven-year-old son worked quietly and diligently in his room with a piece of styrofoam, some pipe-cleaners and construction paper, making a bouquet of flowers. He then walked out the back door with it, around to the front door, where he rang the doorbell and delivered it to me. I’d save that in a fire, to this day, FYI. People who loved me respected that I didn’t want to talk about what was happening, and just brought me milkshakes and pajamas. Note: no longer a fan of milkshakes, and I don’t sleep in pajamas now because they make me feel sick. Man, critical illness messes you up. I’m sure milkshakes and pajamas are both very fine things, but are not for me.
Losses sucked, as losses do. Loss of hair and energy and immunities and focus top the list. Loss of actual body parts and scars everywhere are reminders, every damn day. Now I may be the only one who sees those reminders, which are quiet indication that healing happens. Shout out to Athleta for developing some great products for us post-mastectomy survivors — really, game-changers. It’s an enormous win to feel like you look okay as you battle back, unbalanced and unmoored. Every day, I’m like ‘yeah, Athleta’, singing silent thanks.
Sorting out what matters, matters. It was no small thing that at the onset of treatment, my oncologist told me “aside from cancer, you are one of the healthiest people I’ve seen”, and that meant I could tolerate incredibly potent chemo drugs, and be in a drug trial for a new protocol. It also meant when I was in bed at night (in running shorts & t-shirt, because: no pajamas), staring at the ceiling trying to sleep, I played it over and over that I was healthy, despite all indicators to the contrary. Bigger picture of what matters: insuring insurance access for survivors (my list of pre-existing conditions is staggering, and let’s remember I’m one of the healthiest people you know. sigh.); not dumping known carcinogens in our freshwater sources; oh — and funding the research in a consistent and sustainable way (why is this still a thing — this diagnosis should be so far in the past, like polio.).
And in the mean time, I continue to practice the practices I saw firsthand, that made the load lighter, the road smoother, quieted the fear a little. Lend a hand. Put someone else first. Care more. Run races in the pink t-shirt — there is no vocabulary for the power of seeing a healthy cancer survivor when you feel so far from that yourself. Take care of your body, it’s your factory-original issue. Watch sunrises, buy the good whisky, listen to the waves on the shore, let the dog on the bed, ice cream any time, drive with the top down, leave nothing unsaid, enjoy every sandwich. A favorite from my spouse: if he asks “how are you doing?”, and you answer, “good”, he will often say that Jesus healing the lame is doing good; we are doing well. And the truth seems to be both: we can do good things, and be well. One actually leads to the other.