Matt and I finished 2018 sitting around a fireplace at Menla, sharing resolutions with 20 or so strangers. We had just finished our fourth day of a meditation retreat: backs arched over blankets for morning pranayama practice, short meditations (on our breath, on loving-kindness, on death), esoteric and mystical dharma talks about the life of the Buddha. It was Matt’s idea to spend New Year’s Eve meditating instead of partying (although we still snuck in a half bottle of champagne, drinking it out of white porcelain coffee mugs in our bedroom).
Not that a huge party with buckets of champagne would have been inappropriate. We had just survived an enormous year. My latest scan (December 21) showed that things were still stable, two months after the end of chemo.
I’m still getting over weird side effects from treatment (headaches and hot flashes being the most disruptive), but my blood tests show that I’m edging back toward “normal”. My anemia is almost gone. I have hair, and eyebrows, and eyelashes again. I don’t even need a nap every day (although I can easily sleep 9+ hours every night).
I’m ready to start transitioning back to full time work. Physically ready, at least. Mentally, I am less clearly “ready”. I feel skittish, restless, and a bit lost.
I’ve spent most of the past year dealing with an immediate, overwhelming problem: my health. I had little control over the process. Attend my appointments. Sit calmly while nurses stuck needles into my hands, my arms, my chest. Avoid raw foods. Go to bed early. Lie on the bed of the CT scanner with my arms over my head and breathe (while the pre-recorded male voice in the CT room intones at intervals: breathe in… hold your breath… breathe).
Now, I am poised to re-enter the world. I have choices again. My responsibilities are no longer life or death matters, but ordinary, every-day frustrations (getting out of bed when my alarm goes, organizing dinner, worrying about my taxes).
I am re-entering the world, but I am not the same person as before. If I live for 5 more years, I will have beaten remarkably bad odds. The next year will be punctuated by CT scans every 2 months. Making plans, having ambitions, being diligent about anything that doesn’t have immediate consequences: it feels hard to invest when I’m living my life in two month increments.
The day I found out my cancer had spread, I also had food poisoning. It was not a good day: a lot of sobbing, and then the sobbing would lead to vomiting. Matt cried too, and we spent a lot of that first weekend lying in bed with our limbs intertwined (it made me think of the classic illustrations for the story of the Babes in the Woods, the young children clinging to each other for comfort in a terrifying world).
It could have been one of the worst years of my life. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t because of the love of Matt, and of my family, and my friends, and that huge web of people who wrote me notes and came to visit me. It wasn’t the worst year of my life because of you. Because you sent me love, and strength, and “healing vibes”. You held me, and I felt safe, and connected, and loved. Because of you, I was less scared about leaving the people that I loved: I knew that you would love them, hold them, be with them.
It is a miracle that I am alive right now. My cheeks are round and rosy, and I am mainly healthy– despite the dire odds, despite six months of chemo.
Finishing the intense period of treatment has also left me with a weird sense of loss. It turns out, we humans are actually really good at coping with disasters. We respond to acute stress by coming together, cooperating, connecting. The stuff that makes us cranky? It’s the chronic, everyday stress of normal life.
I experienced serious illness. I had a biopsy site that wouldn’t heal: we changed the dressing twice a day as my body kept optimistically producing the fluids that would normally knit my skin back together again. I couldn’t lift my left arm for a month as the tumor in my shoulder ate through bone and pressed on muscle. I received so much chemotherapy that my hemoglobin crashed (I had Grade 4 anemia – Grade 5 is death). In 2017, Matt and I had been talking about starting a family. In 2018, I was buying books to help him cope with losing a spouse.
I wouldn’t choose to have cancer if I had been offered a menu of life options for 2018. And when my doctor called to tell me that my latest scan results were clear, I literally got on my knees with gratitude for more life, for freedom from chemotherapy. But life post treatment is also an unexpectedly difficult time. No more silent waiting rooms, or hours patiently waiting for chemo to finish. Instead, the noise of the city and the subway. Patiently wading through the 500 unread emails in my work inbox.
When I was going through treatment, it was a great achievement to finish my meals and get to my appointments on time. Now, I am faced again by the myriad tasks required in adult life (where is my trophy for being responsible?)
I am hugely grateful for the people who made this experience one of love and connection instead of fear and loneliness. I am hugely grateful to be well – even if just for a period. But it’s also weird and hard to be merging back into the stream of life.