The world of cancer is peppered with super achievers. For some people, a cancer diagnosis propels them into a flurry of mountain treks, book deals, year-long walkabouts, profitable blogs, the starting of foundations. They do cleansing diets, quit or change their jobs, marry or get divorced, adopt children, remodel their homes. The wind machines of productivity blow their long, flowing (metaphorical) hair into the photographer’s lens, and the world, it celebrates their proliferating efforts.
“You don’t have long to live,” cancer says. It is, to be sure, a wake up call.
Respect. And it’s no one’s business how we react to cancer or any disease. The music of coping has a wide, wide range.
And yet I can’t help feeling pressured, at times, to do. I realize this is partly cultural. Americans value productivity, work, achievement, productive leisure (think high-end tents, travel, what did you do this weekend?). Even cancer is no ticket out of this race. Even the cancer patient (and the chronically ill in general) must justify their rest, their healing, their not-productive-sitting-reading-resting being. We don’t honor enough that healing is an active, regenerative process in which the body’s reserves must be deeply tapped. This causes fatigue. It can cause grief. We don’t honor rest. We don’t honor the trauma that cancer heaps on the mind and the body, and the concentric circles it then echoes into family, friends, community.
In this vein, I want to say that I haven’t been terribly productive. This has its pluses, its minuses. Working outside the home is a way of staying engaged with the world, is a way of having another thread of meaning woven into your life. And I have been away from a job I love for nearly seven months. Working inside the home is a series of tasks that are constantly being undone, and therefore there’s little to show for it. And I haven’t written a book, haven’t remodeled a room. Kitchen cabinets remain in disarray. The wet mop is still outside, the linoleum has holes.
I ask myself: What should I be doing, exactly? Should I be sorting through the old books, cleaning the garage? Another Costco run? More vigorous meditation, reading professional manuals? Piles of poem and other drafts stack each household table, as do my husband’s paints, brushes, figures. I wander and sit. I read, then rest. I cook a little, grocery shop. Then rest some more. I spend 2-3 hours a day doing physical therapy exercises. “What do you do all day?” someone asked. Cue maniacal laughter.
I once scrolled past a Twitter post that read something like, “Click to see how breast cancer inspired this woman to climb Mt. Everest!” I replied, semi-snarkily, “Breast cancer made me cranky and tired.” Oh, the dark humor of it. But it was the truth.
And you know what?
It was the most productive thing I did that day.
How do you cope with your body’s need to heal? Its unpredictability, the need for rest?
I’ve always wanted to hike the Lake Tahoe mountain range. It’s been a dream of mine to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail. According to the link, it’s considered one of the most scenic hikes in the world, and I can see why. Starting from the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead, the valley views are incredible.
Altitude: 8, 740 feet.
I went alone. I was a little nervous – not about safety, but more about my health. I’ve had a large number of lymph nodes removed due to cancer metastases, and one of the side effects of this (not mentioned in the “happy pink” and “you’re a survivor” positivity ticker tape) is the lifelong risk of permanent arm swelling, cellulitis, risk of cuts, bites, and possibly permanent manual massage and pumping and physical therapy that comes with lymphedema. After my breast cancer surgery, the list of “things to avoid to prevent lymphedema” included: high altitudes, vigorous exercise, pet scratches, dehydration, weight lifting, vigorous and regular movement of the right arm, saunas and hot tubs, and so on. The list was a devastating litany of losses.
The physical therapist told me, “You might want to think of getting rid of your cat. Also, avoid air travel.” More than the cancer, I felt like my life had been taken away. How much more of my body would be carved, how much more to lose? I went home and wept. I hated it all – the cancer, the lost tissue, the loss of activities I loved. Life.
But, as we must do to continue living, I regrouped. Such gratitude to my support group, to include online ladies, a hallelujah chorus of friends, family, writing group, community, my husband and daughter and wonderful colleagues. This pool of support buoyed me, kept me grounded, prompted (and prompts) me to get back out and live.
And so this hike, 6 miles in high thin air, was more than walking. It was a kind of milestone, a kind of fuck you to the limitations of this disease. It’s not the 10 miler I’d hoped, or the full 15-day outback trek I’d dreamed of, but it’s a start. A small victory.
The best, sauciest, crab cakes EVER. With wine and a sweet lake breeze.
My husband, daughter and I spent a few days at the coast just getting quiet, reading, drinking coffee, walking and listening. The landscape, it is not especially glamorous or light-filled, but we like it that way. I like the quiet serenity of it.
The subtlety of the colors and layers reminds me to look more deeply.
Not everything has to be bright, or vivid. Not everything needs to move.