Over udon soup and sushi at my favorite Japanese restaurant, Nomi said health challenges taught her this: “Prepare to be unprepared.” This pithy phrase speaks to just about everything I know about cancer treatment, which often feels like a too-fast or too-slow medical excursion in an unknown desert with a big bottle of water and no map.
As I get ready for surgery at high noon on Friday to implant a teeny-tiny gold bowl bearing radiation under my right eye, I realize how little I know what I’m preparing for. I understand that the implant will be removed June 19th, then the tumor will dissolve over the coming months, but there’s so much I don’t know. I haven’t met anyone who has had this procedure or rare cancer (1 in 100,000), which gives me a dazed and daunting sense of reality. Will it feel wildly-uncomfortable or painful? Will I still be me while harboring a radioactive time machine for five days? Having a good imagination and a talent for anxiety easily sends me to the races, up the wall, and across the living room with questions.
At the same time, I know such questions are based on a false premise: that there are relevant answers to be had for the cost of obsession and insomnia. Having had a very popular cancer, breast cancer, 17 years ago, I should know better. Back then, I assured myself that I would simply do what my mother and aunt did: a lumpectomy with a side of radiation, then I would be home-free. Other people’s breast cancer stories gave me more varieties of what to expect. All of this worked like fake scaffolding: it seemed to lift me up to high windows to peer into the future, giving my trembling feet a false sense of solid ground. But what happened, like what happens for most of us (even when the treatment turns out to be what we expected), was totally different.
There’s nothing like embodied experience to show us the power of the real. My breast cancer was more advanced than I thought. Chemo, which I previously believed was something I would never ever do, turned out to be relatively okay, punctuated by bouts of annoying ailments and culminating into a lot of exhaustion at the end of six months of treatment. Surgeries were moment-by-moment adventures of surrender and recovery, fear and triumph, thirst and replenishment, sometimes with nausea, a bit of pain, or a rash (guess who turned out to be allergic to morphine?), but overall better than I expected. Over and over, I was dazzled by the body’s ability to heal, but even more so, by the many ways our friends and community fed and held our family (including the kids, all young at the time) in the 14 months between the initial diagnosis and final surgery.
My previous experience doesn’t mean much when it comes to any predictability, except for this: I know even more than ever how much the way ahead is made of mystery and love, prayer and the magic of deep healing. I happily take in all the prayers coming my way, whether from Christians invoking Jesus, Jews singing the Mi Sheberach, or Buddhists chanting. I’m learning to avoid what will inflame worry (especially 2 a.m. research missions on the internet) and keep me from being present enough to be with all that comes.
I sit outside as much as possible and listen to music, including the continual birdsong and wind-in-trees rhythms of the here and now in this beautiful time. I write my intentions for this surgery. I’m vow to continue giving myself willingly and completely to the best abilities of my doctors and medical team. I stand on the back desk late at night with Ken’s hands on my shoulders as we thank the ancestors and land for all the guidance we find here. I laugh so hard while cleaning out my refrigerator with Anne because now it’s so beautiful. I do long-distance guided imagery with my energy healer. I pet the dog and look into his eyes. I visit my therapist a lot. I talk with my kids and best beloveds, ending most conversations with “I love you.”
And I let myself feel the fear when it swims or storms through, reminding myself of what my integrative physician, Neela Sandal, said to me yesterday, “Breathing is prayer.” Maybe that’s the best way I can prepare to be unprepared.
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