The mind must attend to itself, to its own existence. It scans, assesses, summons us to rise or sleep.
It is a self-perpetuating organ that attempts to drive its own perpetuity.
When cancer invades the body, as it has mine, now my arm bone and both lungs, the mind – my mind – moves into focus, fixation. All thoughts lead to tumors. I wake up and scan for pains and aches. Could be a recurrence.Could mean death.
Fixation turns to obsession and closes me off from noticing the sunrise, listening to the mockingbirds of this morning, or just closing my eyes and enjoying being. I lose life. In dwelling on cancer, I lose precious time.
It’s a difficult balance. My mind, in its drive for survival, hungers for wellness, insists on roving for any possible bodily blip, taking up emotional and cognitive space for simple living.
I understand this need. It is simple care driven to the end of the continuum, labeled now as “hypervigilance” or “anxiety” on the scales of self-awareness. I understand this need, but it interferes with my life, and I struggle to practice living each day without succumbing to grief, despair, or panic.
There’s another dark side to this self-monitoring: narcissism. A medically-induced self-centeredness. Constant bodily scanning, medical appointments, discussions about “how are you” and the morning confrontation of lymphedema, arm pain, and hair loss (yet again) turn my gaze inward. Some of this can’t be helped, as the new normal of my life means accommodating these side effects. But I don’t like it. And I am keenly aware of how much of this chronicling of my ailments is so self-ish. As in, revolving around me.
Hello, I say to the mirror, noting my falling lashes. Hello, echoes my mouth.
I turn away from this reflection each day and make myself engage with the world. One must converse with both the bodies and birds, deliberate on the nature of things, I hear my old professor say. I will not be a prisoner to the tyranny of disease, I will not allow cancer to become a home base. Life continues. People have lives, lives that I am genuinely interested in hearing about, want to ask about, want to be a part of outside of illness. Weeds need pulling. Apples need picking. A friend wants coffee, the leaves are already piled.
An owl hoots and the morning garbage truck roars down the road.
My body has changed, and I’ve got to learn to accept its changes.
It’s difficult. I used to run 10ks, work full time, whip up recipes from Bon Appetit, shop, garden, plan social events here at home, dance with my husband and daughter, flip pancakes, and generally fill our house with the kind of life I’d always wanted in a home. It wasn’t perfect, but my body was an actively orbiting planet around a warmth I hoped to harbor. I worked hard. Like many of us in our productivity-obsessed culture, I bought into the feelings of self-worth associated with being “on top of it.”
This new body is different. Parts of me are gone. I’ve lost strength, lost mobility, lost stamina. A good friend of mine, a fellow traveler on this road of chronic illness, made an analogy that I come back to often. He said, paraphrased, “You used to have 50 straws in a cup. You held them and you could use them every day. When you woke up, they reappeared.
Now, you may have 25, or 20, or 10 straws. They take longer to come back. And when you select your straw (or task, or thing-to-do) you must make more strategic choices.”
I think of this often. Fewer straws, less energy. Fewer straws, less done. Messier house. Forgetfulness, fatigue, contracting the circle of my hoped-for life.
It’s not that I’m choosing to wallow in grief, although I think it’s essential to our healing that we recognize and allow ourselves to feel our losses fully. It’s not that I’m hanging on to loss. It’s that I feel like I’m in a process of transitioning from an able body into a differently-able body, and what that means is that less gets done. I attend fewer social engagements. I cook less, I attend fewer meetings. I set up fewer social engagements because I’m afraid I’ll have to cancel. I miss my friends.
So, what takes the place of my previous productivity? What do I do with the empty cup space, the space where the straws used to sit?
I rest. I meditate. I go to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy (7 months later, and still going). I write when I can. If I’m able, I’ll do a few chores. I sit and talk with family. Drink coffee or tea. Sometimes I binge watch Netflix shows. I lay down and think. I read.
Sometimes the pain from my surgery and chest scar tissue renders me incapacitated, unable to concentrate on anything but pain relief and sleep. Sometimes the fatigue is so extreme, as it was this past weekend, that I am barely able to rise from bed.
And so I am learning – in the present continuous, as it’s a process – to be compassionate with my new limitations. I am learning to test how far my right arm can reach, how far I can walk (a 1 mile a day workout so far is about my limit). I turn my gaze to the gratitude in small things, to the garden with its blooming borage, ballhead waterleaf, scarlet flax, bachelor’s buttons, poppies, and violets. I think of water, of berries, of the rise and fall of a mockingbird’s tail. I think of spring and summer, my daughter and her laugh, my husband and his deep, true goodness.
This learning is not a straight line.
What keeps you grounded as you transition and think of your new life? Your body’s losses, its gains?
Wallace Stevens starts his famous poem with the same line as its title, “The house was quiet and the world was calm.” In this poem, the word “calm” repeats six times, lulling the reader into a sense of languid, expansive openness. “The world was calm.” A person could continue, could go on. This lived moment, in this poem, is given meaning through its rearticulation and recurrence.
An ideal. A memory.
“The house was quiet and the world was calm.” My own world is returning, slowly, back to the familiar figureheads of normalcy. I say “figureheads” because my life’s markers are symbolic, not entirely trustworthy, images of what used to be. My hair is a slow-growing helmet, no longer a velvet crust, for example. And yet I don’t entirely rely on its long-term presence.
My health is in stasis, no better, no worse. Chronic shoulder pain has become my companion. Every day is monitoring, listening into the body’s conch shell and hoping for echoes of normal.
The figurehead of my family is clearer, but I know the undertow of sorrow still holds sway. Look around, the world seems to say. Touch the shore again.
I try to. The world goes on “as if,” the sun also rises. And yet to re-enter the old life again and again in this new body, with its losses and fears, can feel like a lie. Each day feels not so much an entry as an attempt. Hello how are ya goes the sincere greeting to the mail carrier, the grocer. No ill will towards anyone. And yet I close my eyes and feel the fractured, unmoored elements of this body pulling me towards falling.
Equilibrium, even the appearance of it, takes much more work.
“The house was quiet and the world was calm.” Stasis. The dash between words, a valley. The musician John Cage has a famous work called 4’33”, and it is complete silence. Four minutes, thirty-three seconds of silence. Quiet. The audience sits and hears – no, the idea is to listen– to coughing, the rumble of the ventilation system, seat creaks, rustling, and the quiet. To just sit. The piece is a statement to be here now. To be present, a reminder that ordinary sounds, attended to, can become song.
Or simply: Stop. Break. Wait. Beauty is everywhere.
“The house was quiet and the world was calm.” For now, for now.
There’s no resolution here. No closure. I’m aware that my hunger for resolution is a hunger for a certainty that cannot come. We who live in Cancerland, stage IV or recurrent or just diagnosed, have stepped into a world of mirrors and aberrations, in which the life we saw before is distorted. Figureheads on ships that used to guide us can’t be believed. Music has more minor key, or no familiar notes at all.
And what can we do? We return to our seats, or to the doorway, again and again, and in either the silence or the new music we make some way.
What is your new way? What are the new experiences, sounds, sights that you are attending to as you recover?
Despite flu and pneumonia vaccinations, this month I came down with some awful virus and acute shoulder pain. It’s been miserable, and here’s why:
1. My already surgery-incapacitated right arm, a zombie appendage of its former self, can barely reach past my shoulder. I am a person who puts dishes away, who likes to put up pictures. I like gardening, reaching over the sofa edge to put my arm around my guy. I am also right-handed. Now, with a stiff neck, stiff upper shoulder and shooting nerve pain down my right arm, all physical therapy exercises have come to a halt. Waking up involves a pain and capacity assessment, which then determines my mood, which unfortunately revolves around “cranky,” “tired,” and self-reproach at my limitations. I really hate chronic pain. I really hate cancer.
2. And the virus! March, according to my General Practitioner, has been peak flu season. While the vaccine helped, some other microscopic parasite decided to colonize this body. Score one, virus, for the timing of it: reinforcements, aka my immune system, were slow to rally, and even now, in conquest, the landscape is parched and needs tilling. Meaning: I’m really tired, rest a lot, cancel plans often (and am truly grateful for the patience and understanding of friends) and must practice patience.
3. That word: “patience.” It’s a tough one. There is so much I want to do, and so much urgency. I am sick of waiting, sick of living my life on the timeline of my illness. The self-help gurus echo in my ear with their calls for positivity, for strength, for “not letting cancer get the best of me,” and I get that we occasionally need those prompts. But for the love of Beezus, call off the joy. I mean it. You get to throw down the spoon, you get to binge watch reality crap. Some things just stink and neither Brene Brown or Deepak Chopra (despite their good intentions and expertise) can – or should – take you out of your anger or impatience or grief.
4. “The only way out is through,” and come the courthouse of full healing I’ll testify to that.
How do you deal with the chronic, unrelenting nature of cancer or another illness? In what ways do you allow yourself to be in the dark of it?
It’s just one thing to hold a cup. It’s another thing to sip. It’s one thing to close your eyes, another to see. Frame by frame, each of these adds up to living. To life.
Another: my daughter enters the room, sits to check her phone. Her thumb strums the screen. Her neck is a swan staring down at the glass. All around us is the noise of living: the street traffic, dawn on a Sunday, this Sunday, here and now in the paper piles, the dishwasher hum, the ongoing ordinariness of morning.
I have passed many such mornings in a rush. So many days have rolled by in a turning of chores, tasks, to-dos. And the trance of pre-cancer life is one of there is tomorrow. You’ll get another chance. It is of course a myth, but it is one we live by.
But along comes cancer in its red truck and its repeating, manic music of death. Of dying. After nearly three years in and out of treatment, I still wake to its songs. I still wake and do a mental body scan with questions such as: Does my head hurt? How is my breathing? I check for aches, for pains. I imagine the worst. Anything lasting longer than two weeks warrants a call to my oncologist.
Life now is in-between. In-between scans, in-between appointments, in-between one medical event and another. Note the dash between “in” and “between.” It is a space I currently claim and occupy. It is hovering, unnoticed, a connector that links one state to another. A grammatical and embodied corpus callossum.
My body is a radar station and my mind is on alert.
I’m in a holding pattern now. Treatment for the recurrence to my rib is done. Scans are over. I’m NED (no evidence of disease) for now, but the likelihood of a third recurrence is high. Every day I am learning to integrate the Fear of Recurrence into the reality of Get on With the Day, trying not to let the one disable the other.
This anxiety is real, and many cancer survivors need support in coping with the PTSD of treatment and long-term side-effects. There is no shame in this. It’s also worth noting that in terms of human evolution, living with a long-term, life-threatening illness is relatively new. Our brains haven’t been equipped to process or deal with such a scenario, and so survivorship requires practice.
“Practice.” Such a reassuring, powerful word that speaks to honoring the effort, honoring each attempt.
Each day I practice meditation and breathing.
Each day I practice honoring this body and its strengths.
I practice self-compassion, and extend this outward to loved ones, friends, community, the world.
“No mud, no lotus.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Practice isn’t about perfection. It is, in a nutshell, doing. Doing without judgement, doing for the sake of itself. In this sense I find it immensely liberating – there is no call to be good at it at all.
What are you practicing these days? What practices help you cope with the stressors of cancer, of disease, of life in general?
Our small raised bed has weakening wood, the seedlings and sprouts are in disarray, and there’s a scattering of borage that’s about to rule one corner. It’s rainsoaked, a bit disorganized, not terribly well-tended. Its current aesthetic is wait and see. It is a small plot of patience.
I have, on my way in and out of the front door lately, paused by its side to ponder, regard, consider. Why? Two weeks ago I dispersed, with a most unscientific and erratic glee, small handfuls of wildflower seeds from a store-bought packet. I tossed about little pockets of what looked like tiny bent twigs, sand bits, and burrs. Then I covered those seeds loosely with dirt and went on my way. I went to work and back. I carried food. Books, papers, lunches came and went.
But after days of rain some tiny, hairs-breadth little sproutlings are emerging. I crouch down in the mornings to look at them. It’s nothing really, that sitting and staring, but it’s also everything. This comfort. This stopping. This delight. It’s surprise and hope and nurturing and a tiny tip of awe. There’s mystery, elegance, and momentum. Growth. And blooms yet to come.
And I can’t help turning my gaze to my brothers and sisters on this path through cancer, and how horrible it can be, and how illuminating and surprising too. Turning to trust in the world again, to consider the days ahead, is, unlike planting, no easy gesture. This body that has given us life has also attempted to take it away.
I look at the ground and think of floods. Mud. Stones and hail.
The unresolvable, ongoing pendulums of illness, health, life, death. Sunlight, rain.
Yet here, in their tiny upstarts, stand future flowers: hollyhock, scarlet flax, bachelor’s button.
California poppy. Cosmos. Coreopsis.
What can we do but plant? What can we do but wait?
And be here now, fully and with thanks, while they take root.
The diagnosis is difficult enough. Once you hear the word “cancer,” the world becomes a blur of shock, grief, appointments, treatment plans, and phone calls. The ground beneath your feet is unstable, and your future is no longer sure. Your calendar is no longer yearly; it bends into a series of hours, days, possibly weeks — months and years if you are lucky.
With cancer, time changes.
Time compresses. It becomes urgent. It becomes How much longer? and When will I know? It is waiting, waking, sleeping, weeping, and more waiting. Time turns into a photo negative, a dream-state in which death – and/or the fear of death – feels imminent.
It is a cruel and double whammy that, while processing the enormity of a cancer diagnosis, you must also face its interruption of the momentum of your life. You must suddenly make tedious and quantifiable decisions with long-term consequences. Cancer impacts it all: where you live, your relationships, children if you have them, and your finances. Everything becomes negotiable in your priority to survive. And this includes bill payments, travel plans, life insurance, savings, living trusts, disability, college or retirement – in other words, money. Money symbolizes hope. It can symbolize your future. And if you’re still working, as I was and am, a flurry of changes must be considered.
Below is a list of my own financial decisions. These are always up for negotiation due to the risk of recurrence, my work situation, and energy levels. And I do not in any way recommend these steps. Everyone’s situation is different. But I do want to share this roadmap in the hope of supporting someone else through this process. I also want to preface this by recognizing that I have a spouse with a health plan, a stable living situation, and a support network of friends and family. I am aware that many people struggle and do not have this support. With that in mind, I’ve included a short list of links at the end of this piece to help you make your own decisions about how to proceed, and to find support (empathy, godspeed) if you need it.
So, a few months after the cancer diagnosis, here is what I did:
1. I stopped saving for retirement.
You might think this decision was foolish, and I don’t recommend it. But consider: The prognosis for stage 3C triple negative breast cancer, with lymph node involvement, felt terribly grim (SEE IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE). Major surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were in my future. I was in shock and grief, and wanted the money to help with treatment, counseling, and possible bucket list traveling with my husband and daughter. And the truth is that I don’t regret this decision. Not one bit. The small pleasures it granted our family were worth it. Noteworthy, too, is that this decision has also recently changed. With my recovery from this recurrence – a second round of chemotherapy and surgery – I’m shoveling small bits back into the 401K. I might very well live to retire, so with one big toe into the tepid IRA waters, I’ll start to save again. Crossing my fingers toes.
2. We made a Living Trust. Through an online legal service called Nolo (we have no commercial or other interest in them), my husband and I filled out the paperwork and got it done. It was simple and straightforward, and I felt such relief after completing it. After cancer, I had this terrible fear that my husband would also get ill and that our daughter would be left destitute. Completing these documents forced us to answer questions and make definitive plans for the worst case.
There are many companies that provide this service online. You can also hire an attorney, and they probably have better resources and more in-depth information about specifics, but the cost, likely over $1,000.00, is prohibitive. We didn’t have the cognitive or financial bandwidth for it. We live simply and don’t have complex financial dealings, so the online way worked for us.
3. We bought more services. Not things, not stuff, but help. One of the first services we purchased was a housecleaner. Twice a month, we hired a wonderful duo that came and deep-cleaned our house. May larks sing their praises. My energy levels tanked after chemo and surgery. Our family still had work, school, appointments – things to do. Coupled with a tired and sometimes cranky mama, this was a recipe for laundry piles, paper piles, random tufts of cat hair, stacked dishes, and an overwhelming sense of household chaos. But thanks to our housecleaners – whom we still hire, and tip, and thank, and are deeply grateful for – some sense of organization has stayed. Other services we purchased were: gardening, tree trimming, and Uber (after surgery).
4. We spent more on food. We bought healthier groceries and healthier pre-packaged foods. I didn’t and don’t always have the energy to prepare healthy meals, so it was often the grocery store salad kit, organic eggs, and splurging on the Whole Foods salad bar. Eating fresh produce requires frequent trips to the grocery store, meaning more money spent. We also treated ourselves to the occasional fancy meal. Worth every penny.
5. We bought less stuff. Gone were/are the days of impulse clothing purchases, for example. The trendy catalogue companies know our budget runs low. The library is the sole source for books (sorry, Amazon and independent booksellers) and thrift stores cheaply relieve any sudden need for novelty. We were never big on furniture, but any décor dreaming these days is tempered by bills. Dreaming it shall be. I’m ok with that.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know how long I have left. The scales weigh in favor of recurrence, meaning 1-2 years, but there’s always a possibility of long-term remission. This means Be careful with money. Be careful with your time. This has translated, financially, into permission to spend more on experiences, travel, life. Less stuff. No new car, no new table. Not a problem. But Paris? A five-star meal? Maybe. Possibly.
The way is open.
If you have cancer, what changes have you made? What are some of your considerations on this time- and life-changing path?