At age 15, I was working as a cashier at our family’s small grocery store in a sketchy neighborhood. Just before closing time one day, after I totaled a customer’s sale and the cash drawer sprung open, a gunman appeared. He aimed his gun at my stomach and grabbed frantically at the cash.
My initial reaction was to push the cash drawer closed; his reaction was to push the gun more firmly into my stomach.
In that moment I realized, “He has a gun. This is real. This is happening.”
Time slowed, and I took in the details of everything around me: The exact number of large bills he was grabbing, the faces of the customers, the sound of my father’s voice as he approached the robber with a butcher knife. And then, it was over.
I wasn’t scared, but I was shaken and oddly alive with adrenaline. I was held up, and I survived! It felt like an adventure.
Years later, I heard the words, “You have cancer.” More than one time. Each time, it felt like standing in front of a loaded gun. I initially felt like this can’t be real, then realized I had an underlying threat to my life. I wasn’t sure whether or when the bullet would fire, and I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. So, I tried to pay attention, do what I was told, and each time, survived. And each time, the survival was exhilarating and empowering in its own way.
Stage IV Colorectal Cancer
The most recent diagnosis came last January. A team of familiar doctors was in the room: My oncologist, my radiation oncologist, a Fellow who had been following my case from the start, and my surgeon. There was also a resident from New Orleans, a tall woman with dark skin and long, curly hair, wearing the most awesomely stylish outfit under her white coat and a lovely smile. I remember wanting her shoes. Or maybe I just wanted to be in them. I figured that this must be serious to have so many doctors in one small room at the same time.
I already had an ostomy bag from the previous surgery (an eight-hour ordeal involving three surgeons and removing several body parts) but that concern was pushed aside once I learned that there was one tumor that they couldn’t completely remove, and that they found cancer cells in my abdominal fluid. This meant that my diagnosis was now Stage IV colorectal cancer, and the doctors recommended chemotherapy for the rest of my life.
A gun to my belly. Again. Unbelievable.
Chemo For 20 Years?
I hated the thought of being on chemo again. I hate the smell and taste of it, the crappy way it makes me feel, the time it takes away from everything else. I don’t even take aspirin. This stuff felt like poison, a concoction that includes the drug whose shorthand is 5FU. A hilarious name for a cancer drug, though I wasn’t sure if it was FU to cancer or FU to me.
My chemo regimen involves essentially one day in the infusion unit at the hospital, and the following two days hooked up to a chemo pump at home. It allows me to move around but I don’t want to. I mostly stay in bed and count the minutes until it is disconnected. Then I go the hospital the following day to get a shot to boost my white blood cell count. That is four days, every other week. Not counting the days that I need to recover from all that crap in my system.
I would need to do this for the rest of my life? Though I hoped that would be at least 20 years, that still wasn’t enough time. In 20 years, my sons would be 26 and 23. Still too young to lose a parent, but at least they would be adults. In twenty years, I would be in my sixties. Still not old. And surely, if the cancer didn’t kill me in 20 years, the chemo would.
I woke up, every day for the next two months, depressed about my future. I cried. I made a list of the things that my husband should know about taking care of the boys. I thought about the best ways to let my sons know how much I loved them, and the kind of person I was. I considered my shortcomings as a wife and friend. I tried to plan my funeral.
And then, one day, I realized something: I woke up. That alone was amazing. I went to bed, fell asleep, and then, woke up. I was not dead yet. In fact, on my non-chemo days, if I didn’t sit around feeling sorry for myself, I didn’t even feel close to dead. I was still alive. And, I would most likely be alive tomorrow.
It was a weird realization, and something that, pre-cancer, I took for granted. It made me sigh with relief. I had that day, and I could do whatever I wanted with it.
I started to go outside. I’m not an outdoor pet by any means, but I admit that the fresh air does wonders for a fresh attitude.
Then, instead of always thinking about what was happening to me and what I needed to do, I began to think about what I wanted. Here is a partial list:
— A house that didn’t reek of illness but instead held positive energy, light and joy
–Ways to impact my life and health in a positive manner
–A life bigger than cancer
And I said a simple prayer: Show me what to do, and I will do my best to do it.
Suddenly, a myriad of graces started to come my way.
For example, friends shared stories of their friends and relatives who lived years beyond doctor expectations, and whose tumors surprisingly disappeared. This gave me hope.
People I didn’t even know sent uplifting emails, sharing their positive energy. This was like getting little caffeine boosts at a critical time.
People shared all kinds of healers with me, and I tried every one that I could squeeze into my schedule. I’ve done reiki, cranial sacral therapy, yoga, acupuncture, Chinese teas, supplements, and tinctures. I’ve practiced meditation, prayer, visual healing and energy healing. I tried a macrobiotic diet and a raw vegan diet. I read books and attended workshops and therapy. Some of these added healing to my life for awhile; many, I continue to do. Further, these practices helped me to see that chemotherapy was a choice, my choice, and if I chose to do it, I had to think of it as a healing choice and not poison to my system. Frankly, that’s one I am still working on. All these practices helped me to feel like I could impact my own health.
I slowly started to live life in a way that didn’t center around cancer. Our first big outing was a surprise birthday party dinner for a friend. I was thrilled to be invited but afraid to commit; what if I got sick before then? Or at the party? And I didn’t want to use “cancer” as an excuse. I was so tired of making it the framework for my life.
Though this sounds simple, it felt incredibly daring to me: I said, “Yes, we will be there. We look forward to it.” No mention of “if I feel well” or “we hope to be there.” Just a simple declaration that we would be there.
And, we went. We had dinner with a group of wonderful people, none of whom knew I was dealing with cancer. And we experienced a fun celebration, fabulous food and alot of laughter. In fact, we forgot about cancer for most of that evening.
Seeing friends again was like breathing fresh air into my being. Over time, many of them shared with me that they are living with chronic diseases. They shared their approaches, that they read the primary research on their diseases, and often, they know more about the current research than their doctors do. They looked fine to me; there was no way to know they were living with a disease. In fact, the more I looked outside myself, the more I realized that almost everyone is dealing with something difficult, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, and they are all making the best of it. I could, too.
I began to carry myself differently. I started to act as though I was healthy. In response, people treated me as though I were a normal person. The first time some crazy person screamed at me in a parking lot, I actually cheered inside. I was not someone to be pitied! They assumed I could hold my own. I was so excited that I wanted to dance.
My weeks slowly fell into a rhythm: chemo on Tuesday, so out of commission from Tuesday through Thursday. Lay low on Friday, do things with the family on Saturday and Sunday. By Monday, I usually felt pretty good. I could usually count on a good week, then back to chemo the following Tuesday.
I was integrating chemo into my life, but it wasn’t taking over my life. And the more I did this, the more I started to notice when other people did not. I also started to notice when people began looking at me like I was dying. Now I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. Cancer has a pretty bad rap in our society, and I don’t think I would choose it as a fun life path.
I can finally begin to admit that it is indeed my life path. But it is still my life.
I don’t know what cancer wants from me. Unlike the robber, it isn’t the money. I try not to spend too much time wondering why or how I got this; I’ve worried about that enough.