When I had breast cancer 17 years ago, I learned some things about resilience, the ability to bounce back. There’s nothing like being thrown off a bucking bronco to discover that yes, you can hit the ground, hard, and yes, you can hobble back to your feet and strength. There’s also nothing like community and all the love that made me upright again, then fed me homemade soup at regular intervals.
In 2002, I discovered I had breast cancer, lymph node involvement, and also the BRCA 1 genetic mutation — which increases the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other cancers (even melanomas, like what I now have). There were three big surgeries, akin to holding onto a mechanical bull in the middle of a tornado, surrendering to the anesthesia, and waking up to nausea and clear skies. There were also months of chemo, mounting one unbroken pony after another with the certainty that I would be thrown off and I would throw up, and my white cells and mojo would plummet. I’d be overtaken by a numbing white sleeve of sleep at any moment interspersed with steroid-induced closet re-organization at 3 a.m. Ken, my family, friends, and big community love got me through, filled our refrigerator with blintzes and chocolate pudding for the six months of chemo, drove kids to and from piano lessons and hospital visits, brought me a TV and VCR (we had neither beforehand) so I could zone out on Steve Martin movies, and talked me through fear storms.
In the years since, I’ve understood that the cancer rodeo grabs hold of many of us as patients and just about all of us as people who love people with cancer. Having facilitated writing workshops for people with cancer and other serious illnesses at Turning Point in Kansas City for the last 17 years, I’ve also seen miraculous displays of grace: people who find the strength to open their hearts to life and make new meaning. From all of this, I’ve learned a few rodeo tricks and tips from the pros:
- Generally, the hardest part is the excruciating limbo between “you have what sure seems like cancer” to a precise diagnosis and treatment plan.
- New and mind-blowingly innovative medical treatments are coming to fruition all the time.
- Energy healing and other forms of healing (whatever works for you) — acupuncture, massage, yoga, nutrition, walking with friends, laughing our asses off together — at best can spark startling revelations, and at worse, can dissolve incapacitating fear.
- Denial is not a dirty word: it’s a necessary coping mechanism along with dimming the harsh lights of what’s likely ahead for us. We can’t live fully while carrying a backpack full of big rocks all the time.
- Statistics are somewhat meaningless in the intimate space of being alive as a singular person connected to other people in the here and now. I’ve seen people with stage 4 cancers kvetching and sharing jokes 15 years out, and I’ve seen the opposite, too.
- Cancer doesn’t change who we are; nor does treatment. I feared I wouldn’t still be myself on heavy doses of chemo, and yet I was totally still me, maybe even more so. Big dances with mortality reveal to us more of who we innately are, and that is a priceless gift of perspective.
- There’s incredible good company at the cancer rodeo: people with the best senses of humor and get-up-and-go gumption because of close encounters with the life force. These are the best people you’ll ever meet or even be.
- No one is immune to mortality.
Which leads me to now: some fuzzy vision in my right eye and a lot of blinking since March led me to an excellent ophthalmologist, Dr. Brown, who, after two hours of shining lights into my eyes while having me look right or left and taking various images, had to tell me there was definitely cancer there. My stomach plummeted, and I felt the floor fall away. The rest of the day included talking with my wonderful integrative physician, Dr. Sandal, and my fantastic oncologist, Dr. Soule, in between a lot of phone calls, numbness, loss of appetite (a rare thing for me), occasional freak-outs at what wild animals I would have to ride and fear over if I would get to the other side intact. I also petted my cat a lot.
Yesterday, Ken, my soul brother Ravi, and I went on an inner space mission to Dr. Desai, a superb ocular oncologist at St. Luke’s Hospital. Did you know they can do an ultrasound of your eyeball? I know that along with how contrast dye of the eye produces clear images and that if you subtract the shortest man in the world from the tallest, you get Shaq O’Neal (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was booming in the waiting room). The extreme possibilities were extremely dire, and while I won’t know for completely sure if the rest of my body is clear until after the PET scan and brain MRI, when Dr. Desai said it was a treatable melanoma, I burst out crying in relief.
What’s next is a tiny gold button full of radioactive pellets planted behind my eye before being removed five days later. Then, aside from potential and probable long-term side-effects and vigilant monitoring for the spread of micro-melanomas, I’m done with this rodeo, and maybe with the cancer rodeo circuit for good…..or not, which is a big reason all this can be so scary.
Now it’s time to ready myself for the rodeo and other metaphoric renderings of what’s ahead, knowing I will find a way through thanks to dedicated medical professionals, gifted healers, and especially my best-beloveds, particularly Ken, who gets to go with me yet again through a mess of tests and challenges. While I don’t own a pair of red cowgirl boots, I can barely ride a horse, and I can’t yodel to save my life, I can be brave enough to let all these people and procedures save my life. Then, probably sometime this summer, l’ll be on the other side with a more resilient spirit, more grateful heart, and maybe a cowboy hat too.
Thank you for reading this and being with me at the start of all this.
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