If you’ve ever heard the words “You have cancer,” at one point or another, you likely entertained the possibility of death, or even accepted it as a guarantee sooner rather than later. “Lifesaving” medicine may have brought you to your knees, wishing for death if only to escape.
I had moments where I felt so worn down, I entertained an easier existence, unencumbered by a body that felt like a lemon of a car. Diminished quality of life doesn’t make for a fun ride. I wondered, though, for all who mutter, “I hate life,” would they say “I love death”? My gut reaction tells me no. The human spirit has an insanely strong will to stick around earth’s playground, even if its host body feels bullied in the sandbox.
In my curiosity, I decided to consult a source who made the move from here to there and ask, “Hey, how’s the weather up there?”
You have no idea how hard it was to get through to the other realm. Can you believe they don’t have an email address? Okay, so their technology is a little backward, or perhaps so advanced they’ve managed to communicate … some way else. But I’ll tell you, just getting past the receptionist was a feat in itself. It wasn’t like there was an actual building. Hard to describe, but it was more like I was climbing a mountain and an invisible barrier prevented me from climbing beyond a certain point.
On a hill just above me, a woman looked down, but refused to let me in. A big sign was posted: Warning: Entry Beyond This Point Shall Result In Death. Okay, fine, so I asked if she could get my father, explaining he’d want to see me. She refused. Apparently he was bowling in a tournament and could not be disturbed. Okay then, how about my grandparents? No, because they had … recycled? At this point, I got a tad pissed off and I considered perhaps I’d come to the wrong entrance, or even the wrong place entirely. What do I know? I’m directionally challenged as it is. I had dismissed the whole notion of pearly gates, but perhaps I’d have had more success had I kept my eyes open. Oh, well, live and learn.
I turned to leave when the woman yelled, “Wait, someone wants to see you.” And there he was, Ricky, my Pekingese dog from childhood. He trotted to the edge of the cliff, black fur and sandy mane gently rustling in the wind.
I loved that dog, but the feelings weren’t always mutual. He held the erroneous belief that I was the youngest while he was the middle child. Yes, my brother was the oldest sibling, on that we agreed, but he came after me, even though he’d argue that point. I guess it’s the classic baby-of-the-family syndrome. If I had any authority, I didn’t know it and Ricky knew I didn’t know it. He took full advantage. I don’t blame him. Around me, he could strut around feeling like a big shot, which must have helped his self-esteem. He was low to the ground and beautifully furry, which I guess cut into his masculinity, but at least he wasn’t a purse dog, which is more than you could say for his predecessor, a Chihuahua.
I was happy to see him, but part of me felt reticent. I’d hoped he had acquired some emotional maturity that I’d assumed was a given in his new digs.
“So how’s it going, Eileen? Long time no see.”
I was flabbergasted at his ability to speak. Don’t get me wrong. When he was alive, he’d bark “OUT!” when he needed to lift his leg, but even that had been mixed with some dialect of Woof!
“Life’s been tough these last few years, but I’m okay now. How ’bout yourself?” I asked. “Do you like death?”
“Yeah, death is good. No more fleas, no more ticks, no more dry humping.”
“Sounds like a dream.”
“While I have you here, has anyone there figured out what causes cancer? Or more importantly, will there be a cure?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. If it’s not cancer, there will be a new mystery disease. It’s always something.”
“Wow, you’re right. Hey, it’s really good to talk to you, Ricky. I missed you.”
He then looked at me with longing, like he wished he could run down that cliff and lick me, but he never did know how to get down stairs once he got up and I assumed it was the same with those hills. He cleared his throat like something was caught in his windpipe when he spat out in his native Mandarin, “Wah ai nee.”*
His tail began to wag and while I didn’t understand the words, I didn’t need to. The language of the heart is felt and comprehended.
Following my afternoon with a certain dog, I’ve come to the conclusion that death has its perks, the most notable being freedom from sickness not to mention other things. At the same time, I get the impression you bring who you are with you. Which is not so bad. Earth has its perks, too, but disease is hardly one of them.
Thanks for the insights, Ricky. And as my father would call you in Yiddish: Hey, mishugeneh hunt (crazy dog), I love you, too.
*Wah ai nee = I love you. Thanks to Maxwell, friend and interpreter.
I’m a medium baseball fan. We’re different from BIG baseball fans. I like going to games, having a hot dog, and cheering my team on. But here’s where the mediums and the BIGs part company. I don’t like baseball when it’s cold or rainy. I don’t keep up with stats. And I really can’t tell the difference between a fast ball and a curve ball.
A curve ball in life, however … now that’s something I can relate to. Most of us cancer survivors can. There we were, percolating along, having a good life. Then, Wham! From out of nowhere we get hit with a pitch we never saw coming. And one of the first things to go through our minds is, “Why me?”
I admit, I asked it. When I was diagnosed on April 8, 2011, I was a newlywed and my eldest son was headed to the war in Afghanistan for six months. That was a lot to handle. “Why me?” seemed a reasonable thing to ask the universe.
It’s a rhetorical question that could garner equally rhetorical responses. “If not you, then who? Should it be her? Or him? Or how about that lady over there? Basically, why not you?” But maybe it’s not so rhetorical. Maybe it has more value than we realize.
Just before my mastectomy, a hospital representative talked to me about donating my tumor (and the boob it lived in) to research. She explained that my particularly aggressive breast cancer – Triple Negative – was unusual in a woman of my age and race, and therefore valuable for study. She assured me that when it had fulfilled its purpose, my tumor and its surrounding tissue would be respectfully disposed of.
Perhaps it was in response to my fear, or maybe the wonderful la-la drugs dripping into my vein at the time, but this statement struck me as funny. Why should I worry about respecting my tumor? After all, it was trying to kill me. Then in September of last year, the Cancer Genome Project announced groundbreaking findings that made me sit up and take notice.
The researchers analyzed 825 breast tumors and concluded that Triple Negative breast cancer is very similar in structure to ovarian cancer. That finding could change the way one or both of the cancers are treated. My tumor was most probably among those studied. Perhaps that was the answer to “Why me?’ But it wasn’t the only answer.
I believe in two things unwaveringly: first, everything happens for a reason, even the bad things. And secondly, we all owe a payback to humanity. My tumor’s participation in the study fit the first. My payback to humanity came in the form of sore joints, difficulty sleeping and mental fogginess, all common post-chemo conditions. As I researched other survivor issues on the internet, I stumbled upon the National Women Survivors Convention (www.survivorsconvention.com), to be held in Nashville, August 22 – 24.
Unlike typical medical conventions, this one was created for survivors by survivors. It will include educational, motivational and inspirational sessions covering all aspects of survivorship. I signed on as a volunteer and am spreading the news far and wide. And because I have a very loud and very persistent voice, this is clearly my payback for a life that’s given me so much.
About Judy Pearson
Award winning writer Judy Pearson is a graduate of Michigan State University. She has written nearly two decades worth of newspaper and magazine articles, and three published books, with a fourth under construction. She is the co-founder of the Women Survivors Alliance, an organization whose mission is to establish a network where women affected by cancer can find their voice, improve their quality of life, and embrace their new normal.
What, you missed it? Last Monday was National Bring Your Chemo Brain to Work Day, when you leave your functioning brain at home while wading through a veil of mental fog in the workplace.
I know what you’re thinking. When you have chemo brain, every day is a holiday. It disgusts you the way they’ve commercialized everything, but I assure you this is not one of those holidays they have cards for. Come to think of it, though, it would make a great coffee mug.
All jokes aside, your cognitive abilities can be humming along just fine and then, BAM! A blackout. A system crash. The information is still there, but you temporarily can’t access it. The fog creates a veil of confusion that renders you blind and dumb. Unlike real fog, no one else around you is affected by it and they can’t understand your lack of clarity.
One cancer website suggests writing everything down so you don’t forget. Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? I probably did but can’t remember. I do remember shortly after completing treatment being in the middle of . . . whatever . . . when I got one of those glistening gems that writers often get . . . well, I thought it was good and the dog seemed to like it. Wait, the dog … where’s the dog?! Oh, right, I don’t have one. Now where was I? Oh, yeah. So as not to lose that nugget of genius, I’d simply memorialize it on paper. Easy enough. This consisted of two preliminary acts, that of grabbing a pen, followed by a piece of paper. In the two seconds it took to pick up a pen and grab a scrap, I completely lost my profundity. What’s worse, I looked at my hand and wondered why on earth a pen dangled between my fingers.
Now this may seem funny and benign, even if the reason for chemo brain isn’t funny, or benign for that matter. Yet, as frustrating as it can be, we learn to laugh at ourselves. We compensate as best we can. We learn compassion toward ourselves.
The problem is that others are not always so understanding or compassionate of the change in weather that occurs in our brains, much less willing to adjust their thermostats for us. They may not even understand why otherwise intelligent people have unexpected, uncharacteristic blackouts that leave them doe-eyed, forgetful or screwing up the simplest of tasks. Beyond the Baby Boomer “senior moments,” this forgetfulness can leave you grasping for things you learned in grade school.
When that happens in your place of employment, it has the potential for serious, irrevocable consequences. Shortly after being diagnosed, I’d read about an attorney whose chemo brain left him with spotty cognitive abilities that got in the way of practicing law. His employer let him go.
I’d thought it wasn’t much of a problem anymore for me, and mostly it’s not, but since returning to a fulltime work schedule, my fatigue level increases as the work week goes on while mental clarity decreases.
I had a layer of fog roll in this last week at work. It’s not the first time this has happened since chemo, but it’s probably the first time my error was glaring to my superior, where I couldn’t quickly correct it and make everything okay. He’d had the utmost respect for my abilities, so grateful to finally find someone competent. And then it happened. He seemed absolutely boggled. His eyes bore through me as if trying to penetrate the facade of my flesh to discern who swapped Eileen’s body for this zombie woman.
I should point out that memory has always been one of my strong points. Even after chemo, when I’d do the tests to strengthen cognitive ability on Luminosity.com, I’d tested four times as strong in memory as I had in the other areas. That, however, was because I wasn’t having a wave of foggy weather when I took the tests. Those tests are done in the quiet of the home without any multitasking.
On this day at work, however, without exaggeration, I screwed up numbers, miscounting days of the week — simple math that a second grader could do. I miscalculated a due date. It wasn’t horrible in the end. It wasn’t one of those mistakes that cost the firm money. It didn’t even embarrass them, but it did make the attorney scratch his head and question my ability to do a simple equation. Whenever the fog rolls in and affects my work performance, it usually has to do with numbers, especially dates. I’m not kidding when I say it’s second-grade stuff. Yet, when it’s happening, the synapses aren’t connecting and a thick cloud of confusion sends random data into hiding. The worst is when I think I know what I’m doing and I’m not even aware I’ve screwed up.
Chemo brain is like that. You don’t always know when you mess up or forget things. It’s dark in there! The damage is done before you even realize you’re brain dead.
In an office, there are other people, multiple voices and activities happening that make it difficult to focus when you’re already having focus problems. So when I screwed up on the date and I was called on it, I started to mutter something about chemo brain. He said, “What?” I caught myself and thought better of it. After all, to admit to chemo brain could be taken as an admission that I might not be the stellar employee he’d thought, that I might have a cognitive problem, that he’d better not relax and trust me because who knows when this bout will strike again. What if she doesn’t know that 2 plus 2 equals 4 forgodsake!? So I swallowed my excuses, looked at him and acknowledged he was correct in his calculation, and that I had screwed up.
For the rest of the day, I felt like crying. I was exposed. Chemo had ruined me and I wasn’t functioning at the level I once had. At my last office, I could hide it better. It also wasn’t so much a problem because my prior boss gave almost every instruction in an email, so essentially HE had written it down. I didn’t have to worry about not getting it, and the office was quieter. I could focus and work with little distraction.
I was relieved when a project came up the day after Bring Your Chemo Brain to Work Day. I redeemed myself, showed off when I had the chance and compensated for the day before. I was back in the good graces, but it’s scary because I can’t seem to control when the blackouts happen. I know they happen less when I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
I’ve decided next year, I will not celebrate Bring Your Chemo Brain to Work Day. I will boycott it. You can expect a petition that I will circulate with regard to banning chemo brain not only from the workplace, but from all aspects of life. It will be just another day. A better day, I hope. And I’m already working on a boycott slogan that would make a great coffee mug…
Shortly after finishing cancer treatment, a friend brought a musician to my attention who cut right through to the heart, at least for me. I found Eva Cassidy’s soulful voice to be incredibly healing. Unfortunately, she died in 1996 at age 33 from melanoma. She was popular locally in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area where she lived, but didn’t rise to broader fame until after her death. Her music made its way to a DJ at the BBC. After an enthusiastic reception in the UK, her music traveled full circle back to the States.
Eva didn’t write her own music, but sang and played her own renditions of whatever appealed to her — folk, jazz, blues and gospel. What’s remarkable is there are covers of her covers. That really speaks to her style and soulish delivery.
This youtube tells her story better than I can, especially because she’s in it. Below that are a couple of my favorites, although it was hard to pick just two, especially since she had such eclectic taste. Toward the end of the news story, they talk about one of her last performances, just before her death, when she hobbled to the stage with a cane because the cancer had affected her hip. She took morphine before her show so she could perform without pain. I find her story to be so moving.
Enjoy this lovely voice that lives on, even after death. Cancer took her from us, but it couldn’t destroy her music, which lives and thrives and blesses us all.
The Eva Cassidy Story
What a Wonderful World
This talented woman was also an artist.
Thank you for your patience. I had hoped to post this a week ago. First, the disclaimer: I understand every relationship has its ups and downs. I always advocate working through the tough times and attempting to heal a rough patch. A good relationship will go through its difficult cycles even without extraordinary stressors such as cancer, but many are able to get through it, and move on together toward a better day. That is the ideal. However, some relationships get broken at a foundational level and collapse. This article may speak to both relationships, but I specifically address those marriages that suffer structural damage where tearing the whole thing down and leaving may be the only sane thing to do.
This post is long, but split into two parts: My Story and Tools to Empower. Of course, my story is greatly condensed. I’ve shared a few anecdotes — just enough that you’ll get a feel for what I was dealing with. And now…
Shortly before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got married. This was a second marriage and not what I refer to as the “real” marriage. It was of a short length and we both had children from prior marriages. I was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we got married and it seemed our relationship revolved around my illness. I was the sick person; he was the caregiver. He was a lousy husband, but he took care of me during cancer, so I refer to him as the Caregiver.
About a month after our marriage, behavior began to surface that caused concern. Such concerns usually increase and become greater concerns. When something triggered in him, he would become irrational and prone to childish displays.
The morning of my first chemo, he threw a tantrum and said he was leaving me, right then, 20 minutes before I had to leave to go to the oncologist’s for my first dreaded chemo. Why was he so pissed off? In a nutshell, the day before while at work, while he was out of town getting his son situated at college, I called my son, instead of him, when I was terrified about treatment. He also imagined I talked poorly of him to my son. Upset with me, he pounded his fist on the bathroom door and said, “You’re just like my ex. I can’t believe this is happening to me again! I’m out of here. You’re on your own!” All at once, I faced the terror of my first infusion, blindsided by the Caregiver’s tantrum and announcement of walking out, and scrambling to find a ride to chemo in case I couldn’t drive myself back. I began to call a friend, but couldn’t punch in her number because my hands were trembling. The Caregiver then apologized and said he wasn’t going anywhere. I threw myself down on the bed and cried while he tried to comfort me. He said he was sorry, but what did it matter? This kind of drama and emotional ping-ponging shouldn’t happen, let alone in the midst of dealing with a traumatic medical event.
That night, my body indulged in a puke fest. While I had no control over the landing, I hit a bull’s eye when I puked all over the Caregiver’s jeans. Recycled Adriamycin right in his lap … Oooh, what’s that I hear? Ahhh! That’s the sound of my readers cheering!
Every two weeks, he would get pissed off about … God knows what … and he’d announce he was leaving me. When I say every two weeks, I had chemo every other Thursday and like clockwork, he’d throw his tantrums every second Saturday. As many of you know, the third day after chemo is the worst day for side effects. I’d peer at him from the bleary-eyed darkness of an Adriamycin stupor and wonder what he was talking about. One third-day-after, he stormed into the bedroom where I lay in bed. He started yelling about how “screwed up” I was and that he had needs, too! His face was a blur and through my haze, all I could think was, Does he think I’m screwed up because I’m sick and lying in bed?
One particular third-day-after, he said he needed to go to the store and asked if I needed anything. I said, no, I didn’t, after which he hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, and left to run errands. He stormed through the door about an hour later, fuming, and announced, “We need to talk!” I thought, Whatever could have happened between the hug and kiss goodbye and now? I said, “What in the world could have happened between now and when you left? Oh, never mind. I don’t want to know. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s bullshit. And while we’re on the topic, you’ve really got to stop that Jekyll and Hyde crap. But if you must, can you not do it on the worst day of side effects? At least hold off until Monday when I’m feeling a bit better?” Of course, I laced my words with sarcasm. He acted like he wasn’t aware of his behavior, but having called him on it, it never happened again, at least not when I was at my weakest and most vulnerable. Of course, there was a lot of calm and good behavior between the bad scenes, which is why it was so easy to be caught off-guard and to feel like a human yo-yo.
During one of my efforts to confront the situation, he responded that I had emotionally pulled away. I said, “You threaten to leave me every two weeks. What do you expect? Pulling away is what you do to protect yourself.” The “I’m leaving” soliloquys stopped entirely.
Believe it not, there was another behavior that was the bigger deal breaker: His chronic lying. He lied for three reasons: 1) to inflate his self-worth; 2) to avoid conflict and still do what he wanted; and 3) to look out for his self-interests, even at my expense. The lies were over little things, and then they were about bigger things. Can you imagine having those revelations while in the midst of chemotherapy?
I worked part-time throughout chemo, underemployed and barely getting by. He was unemployed at the time and actually more dependent on me financially. He did take care of me: cooking, laundry, shopping, getting me to and from chemo. The man was a natural caregiver. He seemed to thrive in that role. I think it made him feel needed. And me? After coming home from work while treating for cancer, I felt grateful to find dinner in the oven, the clothes washed and folded, and food in the refrigerator. It was like I had a housewife from the 50s. My chemo nurse kept telling me, “Chemo is your friend.” When I saw how the Caregiver took care of the running of the home when I had no energy for it myself, I had to admit: Chemo is my friend!
The bigger thing is he paid into COBRA for health insurance, and my health coverage came from his coverage. So in the midst of everything, I found myself dependent on him for care and medical coverage. Leaving was not an option, at least not at that time. I felt conflicted and tortured as I found myself burrowed in a deep hole with no way out in sight.
When trust erodes a marriage, love must die. It simply cannot thrive in that environment. In the absence of truth, we suffer the wound of betrayal. This toxic breeding ground creates a profound sense of unsafety. To share living quarters with the offending person, and especially one’s bed, compounded with the vulnerability of being ill, can make you feel stuck in a prison that is your own home. Ideally, your home should serve as a sanctuary from the world’s difficulties. For your dwelling to shelter such an intolerable situation leads to depression, hopelessness and despondency, especially when leaving is an impossibility, even if for just this period of time.
I’ve heard it said that living in the past or the projected future is the enemy of happiness; that happiness is found in living in the present moment with an attitude of gratitude. There is some truth to these clichéd sayings, but they don’t take into account those whose present reality is such complete hell that the only way to escape is to comfort ourselves with a nostalgic better time or to project hope into a future yet unrealized. Even if the future doesn’t ultimately pan out, in the now, it provides comfort to imagine better possibilities ahead.
I did find my own ways to cope with the present in the midst of my personal hell.
This is to protect you. Often, they behave well and we forget what this person is capable of. Just as you think everything will be all right after all, something happens to crush you. You experience disappointment because those well-behaved moments raise your expectations only to take your emotions on a wild rollercoaster ride. Enjoy the good moments and be thankful for any reprieve, but understand that this person has not changed. Keep your expectations at a realistic level so at least you won’t be blindsided all over again.
One of the biggest things we miss when our relationships suffer is the bliss of union. While it’s not the same, you can experience the bliss of union in other aspects of life. For instance, I experience this frequently in the creative arts. When I listen to a piece of music that strikes a chord in my soul, at that moment, I experience union with the song that creates a moment that is bliss. It could happen when reading a book, watching a movie, or through dance. Being in nature is a big pull for my soul, which is why I love hiking. The sound of dirt and debris crunching beneath the soles of my hiking boots connects me to the earth. At that moment, the mountains, the dirt, the chirping of birds and I all do our part to create a symphony that my soul understands.
People experience this in many aspects of life that are aligned with their personal interests and affinities. It’s the proverbial smelling of the roses. When I was in the midst of the hell that was cancer and the Caregiver, I would often take walks around my neighborhood. One house had a beautiful rose garden. I’d always stop and sniff the fragrance, getting caught up in the moment. I’d continue to another neighbor’s house. He was a professional pianist. I could hear him play from outside his house. Those free concerts always made me smile as I grabbed a piece of joy.
I also found a nearby vacant house being built up on a hill. No one lived there and I soon found out that I wasn’t the only neighbor who used the backyard as a Zen garden. A few of us at different times would go there to pray, meditate or just sit quietly and take in the extraordinary view of the canyons and hills. Because my home no longer served as my sanctuary, I found a safe place outside where I could sit alone and be at peace.
Remember, this is a temporary place. In the scheme of your entire life, this moment may feel like an eternity, but it’s just a blip in time, a chapter in the book of your life. It’s where you are now. You will get through it, at which time you will turn the page and start a new chapter with a whole different scene and perhaps different characters. Try to keep the big-picture perspective.
It’s easy to get into an “I hate life” mode, but it’s not good for your physical health or your soul. It’s often hard to see past the suffering to the light of a new day. One thing that helps is to start a scrapbook, Pinterest board or something similar to collect things that inspire, encourage and empower. I entitled mine “The Book of Life.” It reminded me of what was good in my life as well as those things to look forward to. It holds a collection of cards given to me from people I love, inspirational quotes, pictures or words about things I love doing and things I hope to do in the future. Our aim is to power up with Hope. There are many tools besides this that help to affirm life, but I mention this in particular because while covered in darkness, tangible items provide evidence of all your reasons for living.
If you feel the need to move on from your relationship, you may not be able to do so at this time because of health and/or finances. Respect and be patient with your body’s needs. Have compassion on yourself. You’ll know when you’re strong enough physically or even emotionally. In the meantime, when and if you’re able, begin to empower yourself so that you can move on. If this is not a possibility, do what is within your power, but I also suggest outside professional help.
Admittedly, some or even all of these tools serve as bandages. The goal is to stop the bleeding long enough to pull yourself through until you’re strong enough to take concrete steps toward change. It’s about coping and anesthetizing yourself at a time when you have no choice but to remain still.
Even for those who are not physically or financially dependent on a spouse, or even those in healthy relationships, we all come to the realization that no one person can be everything we need or want. Humans are … human, not gods or goddesses, even if love songs tell you otherwise. It’s a hard lesson that usually begins with a disappointment. This is the beginning of enjoying a person with realistic expectations as we take responsibility for our own joy. The good news about the experience of joy is it’s not dependent on external circumstances or even being happy or content with our lives as we know it.
It’s not easy to go from an “I hate life” mode to a place of peace let alone joy. I know this personally, but I also know that desperation is a great motivator that jumpstarts our energy to make that leap.
Please do not tell yourself you’ll never trust again. Why wouldn’t you? You’re trustworthy. Surely there are others in this world, male and female, who are the same. I can tell you for certain that I’ve never been with anyone with a lying problem such as that of the Caregiver. I don’t expect others to be like him. I expect them to be like themselves, whoever I discover them to be.
When I told the Caregiver I wanted a divorce, I said I wasn’t going into all the “he saids/she saids,” that it wasn’t necessary to rehash everything that’s been said, but if there was one thing that was the deal breaker for me, it was his lying. He responded, “That’s it?” He blew a big sigh of relief. “Well, that’s not so bad!”
Can you imagine?
When the Caregiver left my home, despite everything, I felt appreciation for the fact that he took care of me during cancer, both physically and with health coverage, even if his heart wasn’t in it toward the end. As he was about to walk out the door for the last time, I said, “Thank you for taking care of me during cancer.” He shrugged it off and said, “Just pay it forward.” We parted in peace. I wanted to leave on a good note that focused on the good and not the negativity. This is why I call him the Caregiver. He was a lousy husband, but I regard him as being sent to take care of me during ill health. For that, I am grateful.
If you needed this article, know that I send you so much love and so many hugs from this virtual space. I wish you all good things, health and strength, love and compassion, and the beginnings of a brighter, better day.
I had started one of my sillier posts, but it’ll have to get in line behind another, more serious topic. After reading a few comments on other sites about unsupportive, hurtful marriages and intimate relationships during cancer, I knew I not only had to write about my own experience, but that I was ready to do so. My hesitation came from the same place as anybody’s – worry about the people involved reading it and recognizing themselves. It’s a sticky situation and no one wants to open that can of worms, whether it’s not to embarrass another or worse, to anger that person and be the recipient of their rage. I’m certain my post will not be read by the offending person, whose name will never be mentioned, and it pretty much doesn’t matter at this point. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my own process that will help another, I owe it to myself and others to share it on my blog.
I have a post mostly prepared about relationships under stress during cancer and tips that helped in my own experience. It’s almost there, but be patient with the Hat Woman — she’s moving this weekend! And if that’s not enough, isn’t it weird how I just spoke of myself in the third person? That’s what happens when you take on a persona.
The blog post will probably appear in a few days. It’s an important topic and needs to be discussed. It seems the areas where people hurt the most are often not discussed very much online for all the obvious reasons, so why don’t I? Why not me, right? Until then,
Be well, be good, wear a hat or don’t wear a hat… Whatever you do, have a peaceful weekend.
One of the nicest by-products of blogging is connecting online with others who have been similarly afflicted with cancer. We commiserate; we share; we bond. There’s a sense of knowing that doesn’t need an abundance of words to communicate the varied yet common experiences we’ve endured.
I had one such experience last Sunday when I had the pleasure of meeting Diane, whom many of you know from her blog. Accompanied by her nieces, she received her last chemo and I joined them in the chemo room. I even had the privilege of meeting her oncologist who she affectionately refers to as Sir Brilliant. I admit I was impressed. His genuine caring for his patient’s well-being was evident.
I watched Diane remain alert and effervescent from start to finish, talking and sharing as if we sat in a café. I flashed back to myself when I sat in a similar chair. Maybe I should say when I lay in the chair since I’d pass out at some point, after which I’d be sleepwalked unconscious to the car by he who I shall refer to as the Caregiver. Seriously, I’d wake up in bed a few hours later, wondering how I got there.
I felt a little tired this last Sunday and couldn’t help but notice that Diane seemed more alive and energetic than me, even though she was the one getting the last of 12 Taxols – and the last of 20 chemos. As we engaged in conversation, I sensed Diane is one who carries herself with the grace of a strong woman, inside and out. She served our country for 12 years, having been a Major in the U.S. Army, and has now tackled cancer with a similar strength of will. For instance, what do you think she did when chemo was over? Be carried off to home to sleep for the rest of the day? Hell, no! She and her nieces hopped in the car and went to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Stanford.
I’ve said before in my “This Ain’t No Party” post that cancer kicked my butt, but I can tell you for certain it did not get its way with Diane. Oh, it may have annoyed her, pissed her off, caused her some pain and attempted to slow her down. It may have slapped her around a little, thrown a few good punches, but this resilient woman has not fallen down or conceded the fight. She’s stared that sucker down and refused to let it have its way.
Diane’s cancer (“DC” for short) could not have gloated or bragged among its friends. I’m guessing her tumor shrunk not so much from the chemo but out of shame!
DC’s cancer buddies, after taking stock of the situation, probably laughed their heads off and taunted:
“Yo Mama’s a benign cyst!”
The nicer cancer buds just shake their heads. “What’s next?” they ask. “A cure where we’re obliterated and extinct?!”
Uh, yeah. One can only hope.
Even DC’s own mother berates him. “You’ve brought disgrace to the family name. Why can’t you be like other cancers?”
Now we have a situation where DC succumbs to severe depression. Hopefully he’ll find himself jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge where he plunges to his own death. And face it – wouldn’t it be nice for him to take his own life instead of one that’s human? In my mind, that’s what you call a grand day and a reason for celebration. And all because of women like Diane, who has utilized her strength of will and resiliency, even exuding the joie de vivre in the face of an extraordinary test.
As I watched, it hit me that this was the last of Diane’s 20 chemos. She’s not out of the woods yet, still having radiation and probable surgery, but hopefully she’ll never have to sit in the chemo chair again. I said, “You’re done. This is a moment.” Diane nodded in agreement. I instantly became flooded with memories of my own last chemo. I understood what a milestone was happening right there in that room. Tears welled up in my eyes. I began to apologize to Diane for being a crying sap. She smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can cry.” I thought how ironic that she, the one in the chair, was comforting me, giving me permission to cry.
Before we parted, I asked Diane, “Don’t you feel it?” I was still incredulous that she was spunky, upright, not a wobble in her gait. She said, “Yeah, I feel it, but I’m not going to lie down and let it get in the way.”
I suppose I didn’t feel it afterwards either … because I was passed out unconscious. It’s not that I berate myself for being weaker in body. In fact, I think I’m an incredible woman for being somewhat of a physical wimp, but having the strength of will to work in an office throughout cancer and deal with extraordinary stressors at the same time. I am also strong in a different yet similar way. Still, I found Diane’s strength and appearance of normalcy to be fascinating.
It’s an honor to meet people who withstand life’s obstacles with grace, strength and a head held high. Diane, you are such a woman. Be well, be strong, and live a long beautiful life.
Why do we get cancer? Wish I knew. You would’ve thought me a fraud if I pretended to know, but so as not to disappoint, part of the “why” was covered in Part 1. “We’re human; shit happens.”
That’s a reasonable explanation to me. And that’s LIFE. Because being alive and living is to accumulate experience. Whenever you plunge into the depths of experience, good or bad, you come out with something you didn’t have before. This is true whether you’ve been able to make sense of cancer or not. Even if you don’t consciously feel enriched by the hardship, cancer has still become part of the fiber of your peculiar experience. When others insist we fit inside some catch-all, sum-it-up-sentence, this denies us the wonder of inner exploration and discovery.
This is not to be confused with a gift, unless it is that for you. I had read books after diagnosis that created an expectation that I would ultimately find cancer to be a life-changing gift for which I’d be forever grateful. Cancer is life-changing, I’ll give it that, but if it’s a gift, I’d really like to return it. I don’t mean to appear disrespectful or lacking in gratitude, but cancer is worse than any What-Is-It gift I’ve ever received. At least with those, even if you can’t figure out the store for return, you can re-gift them, sell them in a yard sale or just throw them in a Good Will bin. But cancer?
I’d like to create a cancer drop-off. Toss your malignancy in the bin and good riddance. I’ll bet people would dump their bags and take off faster than I could write a tax-deductible receipt. Unfortunately, I haven’t actually figured out how to alleviate you of the cancer load. About all I can offer is this lousy commiserating blog.
I used to look for that treasure that was akin to the Holy Grail of Cancer. When I reached the end of treatment and beyond, the experience felt anticlimactic in that I hadn’t uncovered cancer’s gift. At best, it felt like a rigorous obstacle course through which my perseverance had been severely tested, and continues to be tested. To add insult to injury, to the many people who said my hair would grow back thicker than before: You were wrong! I didn’t even get the consolation prize of great hair. In fact, it seems none of us do. Now that I think of it, everyone who told me my hair would grow back thick and beautiful never had cancer. Again with the myths! If any of you actually got the great hair, please comment and let me know. I’ll be happy for you, whoever you are. It’ll be a relief that the sought-after thick hair actually exists because otherwise, I’ll conclude this cancer business is actually a scam.
I’d like to feel I got something for all the trouble. I know, I know – I’m still alive, but as for the experience that is cancer and its purported gifts, for me, it was something to endure and get through. In fact, I still wait for the day when I feel like my pre-cancer self. Perhaps the test of endurance is what it’s about. That is, after all, my experience. This is not to say I’m particularly good at embracing this test. Sometimes I’m the warrior spirit who rides over obstacles with strength and tenacity. Other times, I’m a child who kicks and screams and yells “NO!” I can’t take anymore and I want a different body. Or just my body as it was — not particularly strong, overly sensitive, but functioning like a normal person more or less. Is that too much to ask? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Some who propagate the myths believe we are here to bring heaven to earth and put an end to suffering, as if to suffer means we somehow veered from our path. My feeling is if heaven came to earth, it would no longer be heaven because it would succumb to suffering just from bearing the stigma of earth’s zip code and a new address on the wrong side of the tracks. When I moved from Southern California to the Northern parts, I didn’t bring Los Angeles to the Bay Area – and I’m certain the Bay Area wouldn’t have allowed me through the door if I’d attempted that trick.
Life on earth is a boot camp. It’s not that there aren’t joys, but challenge is the key word. Those acquainted with illness have a particularly demanding drill sergeant. Life’s experiences aren’t fair or evenly divvied up, even among one’s own life. The wheel of luck constantly turns. We get into trouble when we compare our lives and experiences to others or compare What Is to What Was in our own lives. Then there are the hopes and aspirations that have gone unrealized, thanks to illness. There’s a saying among those of my heritage: “Man plans and God laughs.”
Not one of us could have prepared for the unwelcome guest of cancer. It arrived unannounced on our doorsteps carrying too much luggage, overstaying its welcome – wait, what welcome? — only to turn our houses into a chaotic nightmare.
However, I’m certain that illness, like all difficulties in life, is a teacher whether we’re cognizant of it or not. It’s pie-in-the-sky thinking that if you’re living right, you’ll never have to deal with illness and other less-than-desirable experiences. The names and shapes of specific challenges may vary among people, but they all have the same aim – to grow us from who we are to who we shall be. Illness is a valid path, even a special one whether we’re able to articulate its lessons or not. Like all paths, it leads us down a road that brings us to a new place.
If illness is a teacher, I’d venture to say its demanding curriculum is the stuff of higher education. Those who travail its terrain know the perseverance its takes to grit one’s teeth and get through the tight jagged edges. We understand what it means to fall flat on our faces and get up again, continuing to put one foot in front of the other, even if we’re bruised and scraped, blisters screaming, as we continue to trudge forward. Or we fall. We don’t always handle the everyday things that others take for granted and perform with ease. Personally, I find those experiences to build something into my awareness that has created a depth of compassion and sensitivity. I was that person before, but it’s taken me so much deeper along that path. I didn’t ask for it and if I had my choice, I was doing just fine, thank you very much. It happened, like it or not, and I can’t deny its impact.
If you don’t see it that way, that’s cool too because it’s your life and only you can interpret its impact on you. You may feel cancer led you down a meaningless dead-end and wasted your time. Honestly, I often feel that way as well.
There are so many questions that remain unanswered that may not ever yield clarity in this life. To be honest, I’d be happy to figure out what happens to socks that disappear in the dryer. Where do they go? Is there an abyss for wayward socks that have strayed from the path? What percentage of widowed socks can be matched with other widows and alleviate the loneliness and waste among their species? Are single socks okay when we re-invent them for other things? Do they regard that as their “new normal”?
Admittedly, the sock issue isn’t as pressing as curing cancer. If I never find answers to the fate of footwear, my life will go on just fine, even if I have to buy socks more often than I’d like. It does, however, leave me with one conclusion as to the Whys and Wherefores of this world. Whether cancer or socks, some things remain a mystery.
Recently, I started a new job. It’s the first fulltime job I’ve had since cancer. I’m in a period of adjustment and as a result to the blog, I’m not posting as soon as I would have liked. I don’t know why at this point, two years post-treatment, that I’m still so fatigued. I had been doing fairly well as I’d mentioned in my recent post “Healing,” but I realize that I didn’t have the current demands. As they say: Three steps forward, two steps back, or something like that. I wish I came home from work energized and ready to write. In truth, my body and mind often feel like burnt marshmallow.
I’m committed to this blog, which has given me immense pleasure. I’ve so enjoyed not only the creative expression, but connecting with so many of you in your comments here and on many of your own blogs. When I first entered the blogosphere, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d get back so much more than I give, particularly in the connections I’ve made with others.
As for the next article, I have a nearly finished draft of No-Fault Cancer, Pt 2. I could just post it as is, but I don’t want to do that. It’s not completely cooked and I’d rather wait an extra couple of days for it to be done. I don’t care about perfection, which is elusive, but I do care about authenticity. When a post is rushed to keep up with a schedule, often it hasn’t found its truth. People read it and feel like they’re reading words without punch or, worse, that’s it’s B.S. So why bother? There are plenty of people on the net posting insipid crap. As much as I can help it, I don’t want to be one of them.
Writing this made me recall a post I wrote for another blog that I penned under the guise of a fictional character. I had one quick post that was a photo accompanied by 17 words, but when I’d hit the “Publish” button, WordPress wouldn’t allow me to post it. So I’m going to repost here a response to WordPress that I’d written, for your amusement and to give me more time:
WordPress and I had our first fight. Before I hash it out, let me be clear that this doesn’t change our status. I’m in love with WordPress and even the best relationships occasionally run into a rough patch. It’s just that the behavior was so unexpected.
When I had hit the Publish button of my last post, a message flashed back that said something like, “Dope! Your post contained only 17 words!” Now I was tired and having a rough week so at first, I squinted thinking I hadn’t read it right. As I refocused, the word “Dope” continued to heckle me. I know it’s the internet, but I’d really thought WordPress was above name-calling.
I thought, How dare you call me a dope, WP! I get that you’re into communicative bloggers, but it’s not as if I’m the silent type who takes up space with barely a grunt. I’ve had a rough week, I’m not feeling great, so give me some slack. Plus, I inserted a picture in my post, which we all know is worth a thousand words and, yes, I just used a cliche, but it’s a good one because it brings my word count up to 1,017. Even if it doesn’t, one of the infamous 17 words, “aren’t,” is a contraction. If I’d said “are not” and tipped the scale at 18 words, would you have been happier? At what point does the word count satisfy and please you? I mean, really, what’s next — a message to pick up my unused widgets because they clutter the sidebar?
Once I cooled down, I considered that just as I had had a rough week and my resources were low, words and otherwise, perhaps WordPress was also having a less-than-stellar time. We all say things under pressure. When you’re in a relationship, you try to take these things into consideration. You make an effort to see where your partner is coming from.
Once I got past my initial indignation, I chose to forgive WordPress. That’s what you do when you’re in love. I considered that WordPress was allowed to have its moment, a fall from grace, entitled to be less than perfect just like me and everyone else. Besides, its awesome qualities so overshadow any moment of weakness or insanity that we all succumb to from time to time.
Before I knew it, I began to fantasize about WordPress’s beauty. Its themes are like no other and yet its superior intellect boasts capabilities that outshine the rest. If that weren’t enough, its so helpful in clearly explaining those things I don’t understand. I’d never want to be partnered with any other blog site. WordPress can beat up any of them without question. But it won’t because it’s nice like that.
I have only this to say to WordPress: Because I adore you, let’s forgive and move on. Together, of course. I expressed that in less than 17 words and yet it’s all that’s needed — succinct with a sincere heart.
I have a great idea that would really mend things between us. Let’s start a new page. And while we’re at it, how about some makeup sex?
This is a hard post to write because of how it might be misconstrued in a public forum, but after reading what I have read online lately, I’m certain a number of people will welcome this rant.
Have you ever been made to feel that getting cancer was your fault? Has anyone suggested if you’d only eaten this or affirmed that, you’d be disease free? Others have written on this topic with the intention of relieving any false sense of guilt we may have because we supposedly didn’t do the right things nutritionally, emotionally or spiritually. I’m going to discuss the spiritual trips people put on us, initially spurred by this comment, which I mentioned in my post, “9 Loads of Crap and a Prayer.” The quoted portion below was emailed to me by a woman who barely knows me who tried to “help” when she heard I’d been diagnosed with cancer:
“Whenever anybody gets cancer, it’s ALWAYS because that person has issues with unforgiveness. You need to go back and forgive everybody you harbor resentment against or YOU WILL get cancer again!”
There’s more that’s been said, but I’ve given you enough to seethe over for now.
I’ve tagged these offensive well-meaning people as “Saviors.” They’re like Fixers with a twist because they not only heal your body; they save your soul.
They don’t hesitate to peruse their Louise Hay manual to diagnose what’s wrong with you spiritually and psychologically, assure you of absolute recurrence if you continue as you are, and prescribe the remedies, including visualization, vision boards, positive phrases, repeating affirmations and doing so in the present tense because apparently God is not only a strict grammarian who speaks only one language, English, but he/she/it apparently isn’t smart enough when it comes to understanding the intention of a person’s heart, which is why precise phrasing is so important so as not to trip up the Powers That Be. In fact, if you believe that, you’ve probably discovered the real reason bad things happen to good people. Apparently, Omnipotence has a loss of omniscience at the drop of improper grammar and sloppy tense.
Let me clarify that I am not knocking Louise Hay’s work. In fact, I’ve found it helpful on various occasions. I am attacking those who use it or any spiritual/psychological teaching to fix and save others rather than themselves. That’s not only presumptuous; it’s arrogant, especially from those whose only knowledge of cancer comes from a flow chart in a New Age manual. There’s a reason those books are categorized as self-help. Healer – heal yourself!
I also emphatically reject any teaching that espouses the manifestation of any illness as ALWAYS the result of one underlying psychological cause in each and every instance. Cancer is conveniently wrapped in the one-size-fits-all diagnosis of longstanding, deep-seated resentment. The cure? Go way back into your past and do the deep work of forgiveness.
The irony is that if you peek into the lives of Saviors, attempts to fix others is about the only thing they succeed in manifesting, despite their ritualized practice. Often their own lives don’t work at a very core level.
A Savior’s “helpfulness” is often nothing more than thinly veiled judgment cloaked in frayed spiritual robes. When they have any awareness they’ve stepped over a line, they blame it on God to justify their inappropriate intrusion. “God told me” or “I wasn’t going to say anything but felt led by Spirit…” are just a couple of catch phrases to blame-shift and make it sound like it came from the Big Boss. If anyone ever says such a thing to me again, I just might respond, “God hates you. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to say anything, but God sort of mentioned it and then made me tell you because he’s too chicken-shit to tell you himself. He’d like you to pack your shit and go to hell.” I should try that, but that would be mean. I’d rather be a model of what I’d like demonstrated toward me, which is an attitude of compassion. That and lots of space!
Let me assure you I consider myself to have a rich spiritual life. I’m introspective for the purpose of growth, I have had people to forgive and could probably teach a course on how to do it, no, really do it. I’m not particularly religious in practice, although I love my culture and background. I’ve read sacred texts from a few different religions. I have respect and disdain for all on an equal basis. My disdain comes only when I see a person’s practice create bigotry, hate and close-mindedness, all in the name of God. For the love of God, I reject that.
Now allow me to tear apart the belief that cancer is always due to deep-seated resentment, with this qualifier: If you feel the work of forgiveness has application to you, by all means, process away. I’m guessing we’d all benefit from that important process at some point in our lives. The key is that you have your own spiritual relationship and are fully capable of experiencing that which resonates within you rather than needing an acquaintance to tidy up your cancer for you, especially with a flow-chart. If you strip this behavior of its fashionable clothes, it’s often just a lame attempt to increase one’s self-worth at your expense.
I’ll give them this: They are our teachers –inspiring as to what not to do. When I’m on the receiving end of that behavior, after I get over any outrage, I use it as a learning experience to increase my own awareness and sensitivity toward others.
Now back to my conclusions and why it doesn’t comport:
I’ve seen certain people spew resentment and decades’ old grudges who never get cancer or never have a recurrence. The paradox is that many of the cancer patients I know are some of the most beautiful people on the planet, but we come in all shapes and sizes, too. We’re human, varied and do the best we can. Speaking of which, the real reason we get cancer is:
Earth is a strange place. So much beauty and ugliness; love and hatred; sickness and vibrancy; birth that culminates in inevitable death. It’s just the way of the planet. We live in a dichotomy of beauty and wonder in the midst of pain and chaos. It’s part of the itinerary when one pitches a tent on Planet Earth. Things happen for any number of reasons, or seemingly no reason. It’s part of the experience that is earth. It helps to remember people say clueless things for the same reason we become ill: They’re human; shit happens.
Individuals are far too complex to be shoved into narrow, grouped boxes. It gives some people comfort to categorize and label the human experience, but often this is done out of fear. If others can unearth a reason cancer happened to you that doesn’t apply to them, they are consoled. They need to make sense out of our maladies just as we do, even if for different reasons. If cancer is just some random occurrence, anyone is susceptible. Far better for others if they use our presumed issues as a scapegoat to ward off disease.
Similarly, have you noticed what happens to the friends of couples who divorce? It sends many into a tailspin. When a match made in heaven goes to hell, they fear it could happen to them, too. They’d like to feel protected from suffering the misfortunes of their friends. When they hit on an answer, particularly one that doesn’t apply to them, it gives them a false sense of being cushioned by a protective bubble, or at least gives them actions they can apply to their lives to ensure they don’t suffer our fate. This too is why some distance themselves from others when they’re down, in case it rubs off by association.
In just the last week or so, I’ve learned of a seven-year old girl who had four recurrences of cancer in her short lifespan until she recently passed away. I dare anyone to look her family in the face and insinuate that in her brief whisper of a life, the child should have went about the business of forgiving the long list of harbored resentments or dealt more proactively with her stressors. The irony is that the little ones with cancer are often the most amazing, loving, beautiful people on the planet, displaying gratitude, love and even peace that’s beyond comprehension. If I’m in the mood to adopt a guru, I’m going straight to Children’s Hospital.
For everyone who gets sick who did all the right things, I’ll show you many more people who eat fast food, smoke cigarettes, hold grudges and live to a ripe old age without cancer or chronic disease.
To be continued in Part 2: Why We Get Cancer