The Secret Gems of Cancer: A Look Back
Five years ago today, through a post-surgical drug-filled haze, I was handed the word cancer on a platter. Thus began one of the most horrifying and gorgeous adventures of my life. I guess you could call me a survivor, though it's been the surrendering not the fighting that's brought me back to life. And in my book, every soul who's been given this meal to eat has survived it, whether they're still breathing or not. It's just that some of us get a little more time to play with our people and some of us get to fall back into the oneness a little sooner. Most of the time I'm glad I'm still breathing, but I can't deny the handful of moments when I've wondered if I was the one who drew the short straw.
Of course I can't know if my cancer story is finished and done, but that feels irrelevant most of the time. Come what may, I'll sort it out. And as I sit here a few years out with a little wider lens, I can see the adventure as one I hated and loved in equal measure. I hated the loss of an assumed future, of missing my grandkids before they were born. I hated not being able to walk up my stairs without doubling over. I hated being an outsider to the daily chaos of my family's life. I hated losing my ovaries without even being asked and the havoc of instant menopause. I hated being less female and being turned into a bald, wombless, love-maker. I hated being the target of people’s hyperventilating angst and all the cancer stories they wanted to tell me, especially the ones where somebody died. I hated the despair. I hated being handled and poked and prodded by white lab coats who always thought they knew best. I still hate the way a twinge in my belly can take me on a two-second train ride to my own grave.
I can still remember the words coming out of the oncologist's mouth.
“You’ve got a 50% chance of being alive in five years,” he said.
Leaning toward me with his elbows on his knees, his bald head was staring at me. Lines of sunlight streamed in through the closed up blinds behind me, but the room was gray, all gray. Steve and I had just spent half an hour crushing each other’s trucks in a stupid phone game in the waiting room, trying not to notice that everyone else in there was twice my age. The exam room was small and mostly filled with a lie-down-on-me table, stirrups folded up and put away, thank God. We were shoved against one wall; he and a nurse, who’s face I can’t remember, against the other. It was chilly, even with my hand in Steve’s and my jeans nestled up to his. My brain was sludge, my body stone.
“That’s not very good,” I said.
I remember, after the death sentence, trying to breathe in the thick water of it being all too much, and listening to an endless diatribe from the nurse about the drug-saturated hell I was about to descend into. She then informed me that I should buy a wig as soon as possible before things got too stressful. Ha! You were a little late, honey.
I never did buy a wig, and I never set foot in that office again. I found other faces and lab coats to hold me up over the coming months, as I discovered, to my utter surprise, a precious pile of gems I couldn’t help but fall in love with.
I loved, most of all, the fresh love-steeped eyes I got for the man I’d fallen in love with at 16, and for our three gorgeous sons. I loved playing the cancer card, getting out of anything and everything I wanted to. I even loved the possibility of not having to figure out the rest of my life. I loved skipping church. I loved being bald, the naked freedom of having nothing to hide, and discovering, for the first time, that I was something bigger than my body. I loved looking death in the face, and the way it crystallized and expanded the feeling of being alive. I loved waking up to the part of me that wasn’t sick. I loved surrendering to the circle of life and having my life, for once, not be about me. I love seeing so far beyond the minutia, the mundane, the irrelevant. I loved talking to God about the adventure I was in, and I loved writing about it. I loved the freedom to say and do and write the naked truth, knowing I wouldn’t be here to deal with the fallout. I loved watching Gilmore Girls for hours on end, without even an ounce of guilt. I am still warm from the unwrapping of so many secret gifts.
Five years down the road, I wouldn’t trade all that I’ve been given eyes to see, though I would like my ovaries back. I’ve been graced today to step onto the lucky side of the coin that bald oncologist handed me. We think that's kinda cool at my house, though I do love glimpsing, every once in a while, the view from where it doesn’t matter how or when this journey ends. How could it, when it’s already guaranteed to end in love?