Cancer be like a long hike across a rope bridge. Exhilarating, tiring, taut with ups and downs. I can relate to that analogy far more warmly than the Fight Fight Fight military analogies. Why is cancer like a walk across a rope bridge? Because for one, I spend most of my time focusing on the step I am currently taking. I don’t have much chance to look up or around. I have to keep moving forward as best I can under somewhat uncertain circumstance. There’s trepidation, anxiety and a thrilling sensation coupled with moments of grief and profound insight.
My journey begins, as so many do, with getting provisions. I’m at the aisle of Whole Foods near the express checkout. By the case of baked goods. In those early moments I don’t know yet how my entire diet will change. I must admit I’m buying comfort foods. The sorts of things I ate in childhood, because I feel small. All those rounds of tests? Scary. I have to juggle to answer my phone, but I do answer it. And that’s how I found out I have cancer. The female doctor who calls is not a person I have ever met. She apologetically explains she doesn’t want me to learn about “it” in a letter. Learn what?
“You’ve been diagnosed. You have cancer.”
“You need to have surgery as soon possible. Do you have a preference on your surgeon?”
“No. I don’t know any surgeons. You see, no one in my family has ever been diagnosed with cancer. . . ” I’m babbling and annoyed with myself for babbling. I wish I hadn’t been so caught off guard. After all, I don’t go through two months of testing without having a clue. I been suspicious all along.
“I understand. Well, I will see who is available and assign you – “
“ummm, I guess that makes sense – – I’m still having trouble absorbing this information. . .”
The doctor has already disconnected. I stand in stupid astonishment for about 30 seconds then I call my friend, who has recently undergone a double mastectomy. “Xenon!” I whisper loudly. “Can you hear me? It’s noisy because I’m in Whole Foods. I just found out I have breast cancer – – and they want to know who I want as a surgeon.”
Xenon reasonably asks me what kind of insurance I have. Being asked reasonable questions is unexpectedly soothing. “Ask them to give you a list of the surgeons available, then do your research. Look ’em up on-line. See what you can find out,” she recommends. This is such a sensible idea I punch recent calls immediately, to find that doctor and tell her what. The phone rings and rings.
I check the time. 5:43pm on a Friday. Clinic closes at 5:30. . . of course. I been talking to Xenon for at least 12 minutes. The doctor in question, who doesn’t know me, but is allotted the suck job of telling me the bad news, calls me a minute before closing. Lower the boom and then scram. I get it. I totally get it. The next step in the journey is an additional MRI. More steps. A second biopsy. More mammograms. Sonograms. A second marker. A meeting with my radiation oncologist, who okays my running and suggests a few dietary changes. No soy? No dairy? Wow, the bridge sways but does not collapse.
I become that person who ruins every meal. No red meat. No cheese. Asking “Is there soy sauce in that recipe? Is that sautéed in butter? Can I have my coffee with almond milk?” ugh.
Ultimately I end up with just the sort of surgeon who suits me. Her treatment perspective matches my treatment perspective. What that perspective exactly is, I won’t say because if you have a different perspective you are entitled to your opinion. Don’t let total strangers bully you about your treatment choices. There are roughly 40,000 kinds of cancer, 12,000 in the breast alone – so if cancer were curable by Vitamin C, prayer, marijuana oil or the like – then how come cancer still exists?
IMHO Cancer still exists because cancer is complex and variable, apparently adept at transmuting, altering and adapting. Cancer affects different people uniquely. Cancer strikes without regard. You might, like me, have no family history. You might be a broccoli eating, hash smoking, gun toting fight fight fighter and still be diagnosed. Seriously. I was training for a 10k when diagnosed. Some forms of Cancer can be treated. Quite often the treatments, surgery topping the list, cause remission. Yet in some strange cosmic joke, Cancer can spontaneously enter remission for reasons not currently understood. That doesn’t mean there is no reason.
“Unknown reason” means that a concurrent diet of Chia seeds or a co-icidental prayer may have nothing to do with the spontaneous remission. Believe it or not.
I have mixed feelings about going totally public with my Cancer journey. I was innocently writing, about my experiences of being an invisible middle-aged woman at my first doctor appointment in years. I blog in real-time. My diagnosis plot-twist came along for free. oops! I’m not sorry on the one hand because people approach me in person and on-line with thanks for understanding their similar predicament. I’m glad to be of service. Better to be useful than brilliant if ya know what I mean.
Nonetheless going public also caused me some pain. I completely understand, if you have cancer, wanting to keep your journey secret.
Being secret means you never have to defend your treatment choices. Non-professional people have told me “Don’t get chemo. Chemo can’t extend your life more than a few months and those months suck.” True. But my friend who opts to get chemo wants, nay, demands his damn months. Yes. Even though he eventually dies. And I’ll die too one day whether I go into remission or not, whether I pray or not, whether I eat a steady diet of sugar donuts or a blender of organic beets, so the real question for me (or for anyone for that matter) is: What do you want to do?
One doesn’t exactly get “better” from Cancer. One of two things happen: I die sooner or later. If I want it to be later I have to change my lifestyle to include regular check-ups. I have to balance that sensible keep-an-eye-on-it with not obsessing. Not creating additional stress when stress is known cause of Cancer. Living with uncertainty isn’t for everyone. It ought to be. See here’s the thing, Everybody, whether diagnosed or not is going to die sooner or later. The main difference between Cancer patients and non-patients is, as a group, we’re a slight more aware of that.
Individually? Not so much. Some patients, prefer avoidance. They want to act “as-if” this will all go away. That’s a shame. I say, why not use the diagnosis to get real? Get out of the job you’ve always hated. Get out of the relationships that have never supported. You seriously don’t have time for those. You actually never did. But Cancer is like a magic fairy wand. The perfect excuse for skipping a lousy perfunctory get together and substituting instead a wonderful day.