I ran into a friend yesterday who I hadn’t seen in a while and she asked me how I’m doing. Great, I replied, just great. And in that moment, I truly was. I’d just finished a kick-ass workout and had a few minutes to watch my team play tennis against one of our old rivals. I had a bye this week so I could enjoy the two matches going on side-by-side, plus the gaggle of tennis hens flocked in between courts to visit. Those of you living in colder climates would scoff at our gaggle, in the bright sunshine and temps in the low 50s I’d say, bundled up like Texans tend to do when it gets “cold.” There were tights under tennis skirts, gloves, hoods pulled tight around sunglassed faces, and blankets wrapped snugly. The wind was downright nippy, after all. Good thing we have such fulfilling fellowship to help keep us warm.
Anyhoo, I had a precious little chunk of time after the gym and before picking up my carpool for early-dismissal day, and I was surrounded by friends.
Great. Just great.
Despite the sadness that’s permeated this week with the deaths of Rachel and Susan (and the flurry of blog posts, Facebook posts, articles, Rachel’s beautiful obituary, and personal stories about Susan like this), I’m great. My schedule is full but not overwhelming (just the way I like it). My laundry is done (if not folded and put away). My closet is clean and tidy (I can’t think when clothes are draped and shoes are jumbled everywhere). I’m great.
My friend was glad to hear that I’m great, then asked, “How do you not think about ‘it’ all the time?”
By “it” of course she meant cancer. And at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about “it.”
I thought for a minute before answering. This is an important question.
How do you not think about it all the time? While I don’t think about it all the time, cancer does indeed hover around me an awful lot. Sometimes in the foreground, front & center, and sometimes in the background, inching ever closer and waiting for any opportunity to swoop in and crash the party.
I explained to my friend that for me, it’s like this: you know that feeling when you get caught in the rain, or maybe thrown in a pool, and it’s a while before you can change clothes? That feeling of shirt, pants, and undies plastered to your skin? Heavy and uncomfortable, but not debilitating? It’s like that.
When fully clothed and drenched, one can still function. One can remain drenched for a long period of time and still get through the details of one’s day. The wet clothes cling and maybe even chafe a little, but one can breathe. One can move, onward and upward and from the rainy parking lot to the car, or from the pool into the house. Perhaps one’s heart rate jumps a bit as the adrenaline rushes, and maybe one even gets a little short of breath from the shock of the deluge of water or the careening into the pool, but one is still fully functional.
Myriad reminders of cancer assault me every day. Some reminders are overt, like the news of Rachel’s and Susan’s deaths on Monday, or more covert, like the strange dichotomy of my life’s timeline: events that happened before or after cancer. Reminders can be lasting memories, like the chalkboard sign my favorite girl drew declaring “Mom is feeling better!” a day after I was sprung from the hospital after my mastectomy. They can also be tactile, like the weight of the fleece blanket I used during each hospital visit settling atop my weary body.
The visual reminders pack the most punch: the battle lines of scars that crisscross my body, of course. The prescription bottle of tamoxifen that has a long-term lease on my kitchen counter. The drawer full of bras in various sizes, from the totally flat-chested “it’s an utter waste of money” bras to the “I sure thought this would work for the finished product” bras. The humongous stack of EOBs and bills from the various doctors: breast surgeon, anesthesiologist, infectious disease specialist, oncologist, OB-GYN, lymphedema/massage specialist, GYN oncologist.
Cancer changes people. Inside and out. In ways too numerous to count. In ways both miniscule and grand. Not all the changes are bad, mind, but know this: you will never read one word on this blog, now or ever, about cancer being a gift. If cancer is a gift, I sure as hell hope there’s a gift receipt, because I’m going to return it. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks cancer is a gift, you are most definitely not invited to the party.
Cancer encourages weird thoughts. Because of cancer, simple things like hearing Rihanna sing about love in a hopeless place makes me think not of star-crossed lovers in the projects, but the compassion of friends during life’s most difficult period.
Cancer panics me into thinking that any little twinge is a metastasis. Headache? My cancer has spread to my brain. Hip pain? Oh, mercy, it’s in my bones. Cramps? Ovarian or uterine secondary tumors. Just a couple days ago, I tweaked a muscle on my left side, in between my ribs. For an entire day, I couldn’t inhale fully; taking a deep breath hurt, and my first thought wasn’t the rational realization that I should have gotten a stool to reach the shelf in the laundry room, but the irrational thought that the teeny spot on my lung–most likely a byproduct of having pneumonia as a child–has grown into a tumor so big I can’t breathe.
Cancer elicits a full range of feelings and emotions. There’s exhaustion, anger, gratitude, fear, confusion, relief, distrust, joy, anxiety, and sadness. Sometimes all in one day. There are times in which I’m going about my non-cancer-related business and a wellspring of emotion surges up out of nowhere. My brain must be on constant overdrive. Sometimes the wellspring of emotion is bad and overwhelming, like the thoughts of recurrence. But sometimes it’s good, too, like the happiness humming through my heart when my septuagenarian friend at the gym showed me a photo on his iPhone of his golden retriever, Abby, covered up to her neck in his bed. Why does my heart sing at the obvious love this man has for his dog? Because cancer reminds me that life is fleeting and the good times aren’t guaranteed, so savor the small things. Cancer reminds me to be present in the moment, for you never know when idle chit-chat by the treadmill will flow into a display so sweet in its simplicity, yet so rich in its meaning. That Mr McKay loves Abby enough to tuck her into his bed with a down comforter is rich. That he chose to share that with me is even richer, and that I slowed down enough to engage him, instead of rushing off to my next to-do item, is the best part of all. In my pre-cancer life, I would have been in a rush to get out the door after my workout. In my post-cancer life, I know to slow down, listen to the people around me, and drink in their life experiences. While the weird thoughts that cancer brings get more attention, the beneficial thoughts are there, too.
I had a smile on my face all day thinking of Abby and her besotted owner. No doubt my thoughts will soon run amok again, imagining all manner of cancer-related craziness instead of lingering on the pure sweetness of a man and his beloved dog. Before long, I’ll again feel the soggy weight of wet clothes on my back as thoughts of cancer snake their way through the dense thicket of neurons in my brain.