Cancer is Hell. Except for the Love.
The week before Thanksgiving 2014, I woke up after what I thought would be routine, outpatient, robotic surgery to remove a fibroid from my ovary, to the foggy realization that I had a belly full of staples. Even in my anesthetic haze, I knew something wasn't right. It was quiet in recovery, just a couple nurses and me, and I croaked at one of them, “Did I have a hysterectomy?” She smoothed my hair and said, “Yes, honey. You did.”
The next thing I remember is waking up alone in a dim hospital room. It felt like waking up inside a balloon because of the lingering effects of anesthesia and the morphine that filled my veins. I fumbled in slow motion for the hospital phone, having no idea where my mobile (or any of the other stuff I’d brought with me) might have been. I dialed, bleary. My husband, Geof, picked up on the other end. “Do I have cancer?” I asked quietly. “Yes, love. You do.” I listened, numb, as he told me that when my surgeon, Dr. E., went in and took a biopsy of the mass in my abdomen, it came back from pathology as malignant. Stage lll Ovarian Cancer.
Dr. E. had been in frequent phone contact with him throughout the five hour procedure to remove both my ovaries, both Fallopian tubes, my uterus, cervix and appendix, which was also cancerous. He’d known for hours and hours. My parents and brothers knew. His parents and sister knew. My closest friends knew. And now I knew. I came out of surgery at 7pm, he told me, and he and our six year old son, Graham, were there waiting for me. I remembered nothing even though he said I woke and chatted with them, held Graham’s hand and laughed at a joke he told me. Something about cows crossing the road. I had no memory of any of it.
Dr. E. came to see me at the crack of dawn. She’d planned on giving me the news, not on me being conscious enough to call Geof in the middle of the night. We talked for a long time. I remember her saying, “This is huge.” Then I asked her some questions I shouldn't have asked. “Can I die from this?” “Yes.” “Can I die young from this?” “Yes.” That is the moment it hit me. Holy shit. I have cancer.
The last five months have been filled with fear, sadness, fatigue, pain, awful side effects from chemotherapy, and another hospitalization in January for dangerously low white blood cell count. All my signature red curls fell out, I’m bloated from steroids, I have no eyelashes or eyebrows and since there’s no hair in my nose, it runs all the time. All. The. Time. After each chemo treatment, I get a shot to boost my bone marrow into making more white blood cells. This causes my bones to ache for days. I had to stop working because of the intense fatigue and trying to maintain a sense of normalcy at home for Graham’s sake is a non-stop effort. He knows the appropriate details for a six year old…Mama has a disease called cancer and she’s trying hard to get well again. He thinks its funny that I have no hair and he loves coming with me to chemo because the nurses love him and give him cookies. When I pray, its for him. Not me. I pray that this perfect creature, who loves hard and true with all his tiny, fresh being, doesn't lose his mother. He doesn't deserve to have his life defined by such a loss. He is why I fight.
There is a lot of shitty stuff that comes with cancer. Terrible, awful, scary, shitty stuff. There is also a lot of not so shitty stuff that comes with it. It’s true. Sometimes it comes with love and silver linings, sometimes grace, and the deepening of relationships.
My mother got in her car as soon as she got the news and drove through the night from North Carolina to Vermont to be at my side. She came every day to the hospital for 8 days and helped me bathe, held the bucket while I vomited, rubbed my feet. She cleaned my house, filled my freezer, distracted Graham and made the best welcome-home-thanksgiving dinner I've ever had.
Geof immediately got on the internet and researched every single thing he could about ovarian cancer. He asked Dr. E. all the right questions and he continues to be the best advocate and partner. He keeps my chemo calendar and is at my side for every treatment. He talks frequently on the phone with my nurse between my treatments to fill her in on how I’m doing. He keeps me grounded with his patience and kindness. He puts me first.
Friends came every day to see me at the hospital. They hugged me and held my hand and laughed with me. Once, halfway through my hospital stay, I was alone and crying. Hard. I just couldn't stop crying…I sent a text to some close friends asking for someone to come NOW so I wasn’t alone. My friend the bakery owner was there in minutes, even though it was 3 days before Thanksgiving and she was up to her neck in pies. She came and she stayed and she cried with me. And she brought pie.
Our finances tanked almost immediately. At one point we had $300 in our bank account and $2000 in past due bills. My most gracious and loving friend didn't skip a single beat and created an online fundraiser for us. She wrote lovely things and posted photos of our family and people were impossibly generous. Old friends, new friends, family members, neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends, parent’s of Graham’s schoolmates, people I used to babysit for in high school, complete strangers and people I haven’t seen since 1981 gave. And gave more. Our fundraiser raised almost $10,000 !! It quite literally saved us. The notes and sentiments people included with their donations were uplifting, loving, powerful, kind, personal, fierce and unforgettable.
People sent cards. Dozens and dozens of cards with notes of love and healing. Friends showed up at my door with baskets full of cozy blankets, slippers, earrings, hats, lotions and potions, chocolates, books, candles, bath soaps, magazines and puzzles. Scarves came in the mail. Healthy cookbooks arrived on the doorstep. Packages of cheese and pears and sausages and mustard and crackers arrived. One of the medical students working with my oncologist has become a friend and her mother made me a quilt! My neighbor brings tulips and cookies. My oldest friend took me for a makeover on New Year’s Day and bought me piles of new makeup to help me feel beautiful during chemo.
My friend, the food writer, shows up at chemo with bags full of soups and casseroles. So does my funny friend who breaks into song with me and sends me silly emails. The mother of a high school friend sent a prayer shawl that she knitted. A woman I knew from play group years ago, who is now a friend, brings quiche and soup. So do my friends who live a half hour away and have a one year old. My friend the chef made me a birthday cake I will never forget. Her daughter is Graham’s best friend and they take him for weekly play dates. Another friend brings curry. My mother-in-law is amazingly kind and generous. She has signed Graham up for Super Hero Lessons and Tae Kwon Do. She arrives today from NY and I can’t wait to see her.
A longtime, dear friend simply asked what I needed. I knew she meant it so I said, “a laptop” because I wanted to write and have only had an ipad for the past year. Three days later, UPS delivered a laptop. My sweet, music-loving friend in Joshua Tree sent a turntable. Because she knows how important music is to us and how healing it would be to listen to our old albums. My brother and his family sent an almost-too-generous grocery store gift card. My aunt and uncle sent a Costco gift card.
A friend who has been through the nightmare of cancer calls me every week. Just to check in and listen. I know he gets it. I've received handmade jewelry, healing stones, soup mugs, a beautiful hand painted box from my beloved sister-in-law. A friend who lived next door to my family in the seventies has sent me a Facebook message simply saying she’s thinking of me every day since my diagnosis. Every. Single. Day.
A friend who works at a NYC radio station sent a box FULL of cds and albums. I haven’t seen her in 30 years. I've received prayer cards, mass cards and holy oils. My Facebook has blown up with love and renewed friendships. I get daily emails and texts from people wishing me health. I’ve become friends with my chemo nurses (nurses fucking ROCK).
A few months ago I was at the grocery store feeling tired and defeated. I ran into the grandmother of one of Graham’s classmates who I’d gotten to know a little during pre-school drop off and pick up. She squeezed me and her eyes filled with tears as she reached into the pocket of her winter coat and pulled out money. She pressed it into my hand and said she’d been carrying it around in her pocket for a month hoping to run into me. Just like that. Next to the acorn squash. She bolstered my spirits and paid for our groceries that week.
So yes, I have cancer but love has shown up for me in a thousand different ways. I have friends and hope and joy. I have grace and humility and I have strength. I have dreams. I have plans and ideas and a million reasons to live. I have sadness and fear and grief. But I have love. I have life and I have endless gratitude. I have faith and spirit and goddamn spunk. I have grit and determination and big, fat, balls. I have sparkle and I have breath. I have heart and I have fire. I have unease and worry. I have comfort and courage. I have confidence.
I don’t have hair. But fuck that. Because I have love.