In 30 years…

Yesterday walking out of yoga with my favorite girl, I was relaxed and refreshed and thoroughly enjoying the first day of spring break. On our way to the locker room, the woman walking ahead of us turned to compliment my girl on beginning yoga at such an early age. My girl beamed in her ineffable way and chatted politely with this woman while I, the eternal germophobe, washed my hands. My girl gave me a look that said, “Seriously, Mom, the only thing you touched was your own personal yoga mat, so why are you scrubbing your hands like that?” Such is life after a nosocomial infection.

My girl and the woman discussed their most-favorite and least-favorite yoga moves, and after a short debate on the wheel and the crow, the woman told us that she’s been doing yoga for 30 years. My girl’s eyes grew wide at this, and I imagined her picturing herself 30 years from now, a most experiences and tranquil yogi.

Rather than smiling at my girl’s fledgling love for yoga, I was struck by a moment of panic and a most unwelcome thought: Will I even be alive to do yoga in 30 years?

Not to be morbid, but this is life after cancer.

When I was diagnosed at age 40, my breast surgeon told me something that has stayed with me through the worst parts of fighting this disease. Worse than facing the reality of losing both breasts as I faced a bilateral mastectomy at a time when most of my peers were reclaiming their bodies after years of childbearing and breast-feeding. While many of my friends were undergoing elective cosmetic surgery to perfect their post-baby bodies, I instead was looking at pamphlets illustrated with grey-haired grandmotherly types considering their surgery options.

My sweet breast surgeon imparted a fact about my life after cancer: that I would spend more years fighting this disease–whether actively (swallowing an estrogen-blocking pill every morning for 5 or 10 years) or inactively (chasing fears of mets from my mind on a daily basis)–than I had been alive.

And that’s the best-case scenario, in which I actually live more than 40 years with this disease rather than succumbing to its terror, as is the case of some 40,000 women in the United States every year. Of course my sweet breast surgeon was thinking best-case scenario when she told me this, and at the time I had no earthly idea how much mental havoc this disease can wreak. Had my sweet surgeon predicted or warned me that on any given day, even years after I had allegedly slain the beast that is cancer, that beast would have the power to plant such thoughts in my head as that which brought me up short yesterday after yoga, I would have likely run screaming from the room.

Would I even be alive to do yoga in 30 years?

What kind of thought is that??? That, my friends, is the power of cancer. It can erase the calming, centering effects of yoga in a single bound. It can swipe the joy of the beginning of spring break in one fell swoop. It can plant a seed of recurring fear and doubt with the greatest of ease.

The Social Security Administration estimates that the average life expectancy for a female in the US these days is 85. Simple math tells me that best-case I’m looking at 45 years post-cancer. More years fighting it than years I’ve been alive. Even with low recurrence-rate predictors and stellar care from top-of-their class physicians and access to always-improving tools that monitor my cancer’s efforts to reinstate itself, the recurring fear and doubt prevail. Within two minutes of bidding my yoga instructor namaste, cancer had infiltrated my thoughts and led me to wonder what my chances are of being the grey-haired grandmotherly type rolling up my yoga mat and heading to class.

I know, I know, we residents of cancerland are supposed to think positive. We are advised by all manner of sources–both sought-after and unsolicited–to assume the best. We are told to visualize it and believe it and it will happen. We are told that what’s meant to be will be.

But that doesn’t stop the automatic response that cancer brings. I can think positive and assume the best and visualize and believe all I want. I can employ every cancer-fighting weapon from pharmaceuticals to superfoods. I can hope and wish and pray to the anti-cancer gods. But cancer will do whatever it damn well pleases, and if it wants to come back and rudely interrupt my life, it will. If cancer wants to cut short my plans of doing yoga for the next 30 years, it won’t think twice.

That, my friends, is the power of cancer.

14 Comments on “In 30 years…”

  1. David Benbow says:

    Yikes! I wouldn’t presume to tell you how you should think or feel, but 30 years is such a long time that each of us, whether healthy or not, will have several brushes with our own mortality in that time. However long you live, I know that you will keep doing what you’re best at–powering through misfortunes and relishing the good times. And bossing people around.

    • Yes, it is a long time, and any of us could be hit by the proverbial bus at any time, but cancer certainly plants that seed. I will power through and relish and boss as long as I’m on this earth!

  2. Yep, that is the power of cancer. Sometime I wonder if it’s been helpful to me to become so aware of the risks. Becuase when first diagnosed, I certianly didn’t realize how scary things could be. But I guess that’s the tradeoff of finding people who have been there and being part of a supportive community . . . the risks becomes known. But, at least you’ve got the yoga part going for you. Isn’t that meant to help clear the mind? 🙂 ~Catherine

    • Catherine, you’re so right about the dichotomy between awareness and blissful ignorance! There’s a lot to be said for both states. At least we have each other’s blogs and the supportive community within. I plan to continue breathing deeply and doing my yoga as long as I can!

  3. Eddie says:

    This also illustrates the power of self-deception most people employ to get through life. We all face an uncertain future. Cancer just pulled back the curtain and exposed the wizard for what he really is. Most of us are still living under the illusion of the great and powerful Oz. sometimes reality does indeed suck.

  4. I have to agree with Eddie. Many people are deceiving themselves or simply ignoring mortality.

    My family’s curtain was pulled back many years ago when our 27-year-old son-in-law was killed in a car accident the morning after Valentine’s Day. Life is a risk. Risk is the territory. There are no guarantees of another day. My cancer yanked the curtain open even wider. And there have been other instances.

    On the other hand, awareness prevents me from sleepwalking through my life. While I don’t live in every moment or celebrate every second, I have deeply experienced many things that I may not have otherwise.

    But I also agree that reality can ruin your day.

    • Lois, I always enjoy your comments and am so very sorry about your son-in-law; what a tragic loss. LIfe is risky, and most days I’m happy to don my helmet and plow through the dangerous parts, but sometimes the helmet is heavy and my body is weary.

  5. mmr says:

    Lois and Eddie have great points. I think part of being human is our capability of denial, and we continually deny death. Even when we have seen others (always) lose the game, I think a tiny part of us says it won’t happen to me. Like cancer won’t happen to me. But then it does and our mortality slaps us in the face. Sometimes it’s a wakeup call for good things, sometimes it just makes us believe in the chaos theory and our futility. After two years, I have learned a lot of things I didn’t know before, but I don’t know WHY. And like all the mysteries of life, that is a hard thing to accept. Like I have to accept that I will never be able to do the poses that amazing lady is doing– that would totally bust those internal stitches. But I still love seeing her do it and want to cheer her on as she defies those physical foes that defeat us.

    • Chaos and futility seem to be ruling the day for me. I wonder if we’ll ever know WHY, and it is very hard to accept. Guess I’ll just keep venting and hoping for brighter days ahead.

  6. jbaird says:

    What an interesting post and what thoughtful comments! Cancer came at me with a new vengeance that I didn’t see coming. I thought I would have a good 30 years left, too. But the Oz curtain has been torn and I see life–now more than ever–for what it is: extremely fragile and precious. Thanks for opening this dialog and expressing the anxiety and fear (and even the envy of the healthy elderly) that many people with a cancer history don’t want to (or choose not to) address. xox

  7. jelebelle says:

    This post really resonates with me…for reasons you know. I am sorry the evil doubt of cancer ruined that beautiful post yoga feeling. It is a beast but i know you know that your mind can be stronger, your girl will help you meditate through the doubt that cancer can cause. I can see you in crow in thirty years, she can, you can but maybe it’s easier to think in five year increments. I know for me, if I can see a light with each birthday, I can hope for the one in five, then the one in ten, etc. as Jan says above, it is a fragile space we live in, more so, but maybe we are all fragile, cancer or not….thirty years from now can be scary for all. May your sun salutations at least help us breathe past this fragility and fear to a clarity that life is about going to yoga with your girl, beast be gone, doubt no more I want you to have that post yoga feeling back! You deserve it. I’m really happy I had the energy to catch up on reading and share in your thoughts. Thank you, and namaste. xo

    • It is a fragile space, indeed, Jen. And I’m really glad you had the energy to catch up on your blog reading, and as always love reading your comments. Hope today is a good day for you.

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