Survival

One of my favorite authors, Alice Hoffman, wrote a tiny little book titled, “Survival Lessons.” I picked it up because it was small – about as big as my attention span on some days lately, and, well, I’m kind of into the whole survival thing also. It wasn’t until I read the preface that I learned she is a 15-year breast cancer survivor.

I smiled and nodded at many things she wrote, about enjoying yourself, spending time with friends and family. How your truest friends will be the ones who want to sit with you through three hour treatments, bring meals, glow sticks to scans, or just sit when that’s all the energy you have.

But some things she wrote I need to remember, because I find myself forgetting it’s okay to give in to myself, to take naps because they really are more of a necessity than a luxury now, even as I step further through my treatment. She says, “Go and don’t feel guilty,” I’m still working on that – even as I feel the iron clamp of headache begin to squeeze at my temples – a sure sign that I should rest.

“Time is different now. Don’t worry about wasting it. It belongs to you,” Alice says. Don’t be ashamed about wasting time doing unproductive things like watching the rain or the clouds or the frost creep across the window. In the days following treatments, it’s a struggle to become social again, to drag through work and responsibilities when the nest I create for recuperating is so inviting.

In that short little book it reminded me that the time to empty my bucket list is now. After all, what am I waiting for? All the books I wanted to read gather dust, all the things I planned to save for later, well, it’s later.

It goes back to giving in to yourself. I’m not good at that. Even though melanoma can sneak up again at any moment, I have to remind myself that resting will help my body fight back, even as there is no evidence of disease right now. That hard-working German farm blood still surges through my veins taunting me – come on you sissy, it’s not so bad, push through, you will be fine, who needs to rest?

As Alice said at the end of the book, some things stay with you forever. Cancer changes you and it’s never the same. Forgive me if I indulge. Time is different now – it belongs to me and I have people to spend time with, books to read, babies to hold, hugs to give, naps to take. The dirty dishes and floors can wait.

Comrades in cancer

I was sitting at the Regional Cancer Center waiting to be called in for my next treatment when I saw him and his wife walk out. A public official. Tucked under one arm, the white boxy folder that would hold his life from here on out – the personal health manager familiar to all cancer patients at the clinic.

While I wanted to extend my condolences for whatever diagnosis he faced, I simply smiled a greeting, allowing him personal space for dealing with his crisis. Later that day, I saw him again at a public event. In this less personal setting, I approached and asked how things were going – a general question anyone could expect. His answer of, “not as good as I would like,” the caring glances from his wife, and the knowledge of our previous encounter told me enough. I left him with wishes of strength, not pressing further, knowing when he was ready, he would share his story.

It’s heartbreaking to see another join the ranks of comrades in cancer, even more so when it’s a familiar face. I have yet to learn the details, but regardless of his battle ahead, any of us who have walked out with that same folder know the feeling of your life hanging by a thread. Suddenly your weeks revolve around doctors appointments, scans, blood tests and treatments. You readjust your step, not knowing when it will be your last, and your priorities, focusing on the only things that truly matter.

Life will seem a little out of focus for him and his family as they readjust to this new normal. Life never goes back to normal after cancer, maybe a new normal, but not the normal you knew before diagnosis, when cancer happened to other people and other families and you felt sorry for them and their hardship, but the crushing blow had not been dealt to you, nor would hang over you every day – until now.

You’ve become one with us in the armed force fighting cancer, in whichever branch of the malignant army you have been assigned.  I hope your battle is strong, short, and successful. More than anything, I wish you peace in the days ahead as you armor up and charge across fields none of us want to see, yet all too many are forced to navigate.

May God bless you and your family.