I never thought I’d live to say it, but here it is: It’s my daughter’s first day of senior year.
Cancer has now been my companion for over five years. It’s been an unwelcome visitor, a deadly ghost, an iron wheel turning under the street. And yet my daughter lives, I live, my husband lives—and this first day back at school is a sword in hope’s stone. We claim it, it is ours.
There will be no trumpets. A few screens will go black. We’ll look at the grass, finches will twitch, and the train calls will continue until dawn.
But eventually the fog will clear and in friendship with the scrub jays and bright red zinnias I get to say: I’m in remission, my daughter’s back at school, nothing in this can sway.
I had scans in July and all the tumors are stable. No growth. Holding steady. Starboard as she goes. Life has settled into a routine of chemo every three weeks, with one week of recovery and two weeks of near-normalcy. One week on, two off. This rhythm stabilizes my life and makes it easier to plan rest, meals, and activities. It gives me hope. And while I know I’ll be on chemotherapy forever, this chemical pace gives room for living and for life.
I am slowly learning how to accept the likely-permanent paralysis of my right arm. It is a slow process. Dictation software helps, and my daughter and husband have rallied, too. But the magnitude of it – the utter uselessness of this limb now, the sudden, startling flopdowns when it’s unsupported, its fishlike swing and sway, its blankly numb detachment from the whole of my body’s honed, coordinated machinations, its sheer weight and cumbersome ostracism, a rogue gong, a flaying odd pendulum—is a continuous, displaced, awkward reminder of cancer treatment’s costs. What is the cost of living? What are you willing to pay?
It is all we have, this sad giving. Reluctantly we open our fists, offer our veins, bare our heads, and display and platter our full selves for the reckonings of scan results. We hope for months, beg for years. We search online, query the doctors, roll over with the real and dream upheavals of this nightmarish, dazed half-life we plea to withstand. Oh we are a desperate chorus of endurers hoping to be whole.
And each day is one and one, the word “more” a felt bead on a rosary we hope to hold.
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.
It’s the post-Thanksgiving hubbub and cozy couch life. We’ve eaten as a family and hung out with dear friends, and gratitude for each small bite abounds. We bought and decorated our tree yesterday, which was strategic planning on our part, as my next chemo cycle started Friday afternoon and we knew it would wipe me out. So Friday morning, we scrambled. The tree is lopsided, imperfect, and beautiful. There’s a metaphor there for living, I think.
I’ve started a new chemo cycle. The immunotherapy I was on, Tecentriq, nearly eliminated the larger tumor under my armpit. Unfortunately, as cancer will do, some cells developed resistance to the immunotherapy and moved into my lungs. I now have 5+ tumors in both lungs. It’s impacting my breathing and causing some coughing. This was terrible news for our family and has caused yet more grief. We’ve told our daughter about this recurrence, that it’s treatable, and that we’re taking things one step at a time.
Those conversations with our child – they are the worst, most wrenching part of this dread tunnel.
And so I’m now on Carboplatin, Gemcitabine, and Tecentriq, all at once. After my first dose last month I slept for nearly 36 hours, with one – or two- hour wakings for water and food. I kept very little down. This treatment plan, if successful, might add another year to my life, but I will be on it forever or until it stops working, and sick for 1/3 of the time.
It’s the worst treatment to date. For about 7 days after, I am very sick, despite anti-nausea medications and steroids. Carboplatin and Gemcitabine can really knock down blood counts. Some people need transfusions, and I hope I do not.
How do I feel about this? How does one go forth, knowing that 1/3 of his/her foreseeable life will be flu-like nausea and pain?
I still choose to remain in gratitude for each day. Each day these eyes manage to open is one to be thankful for. I planted daffodils and crocuses to invest in next spring, and I make wishful, hopeful travel plans. My daughter still has homework, my husband likes a good meal. Friends are treasures, better than gold.
And yet I’m so sick of being sick. So sick of relating to people through the lens of disease. There are times when I wonder if someone is reaching out because of obligation, or because of something else. I blame no one for this. It’s the nature of cancer, and people mean well. But the lens of cancer forces all kinds of urgency, can make people want to be a “good person” and reach out, when really it’s not necessary. And yet sometimes it is. And the hard part is to navigate asking and receiving, distance and proximity, and knowing it’s clumsy and hard and the forging of a new relationship with people around you.
And understanding that the lives of others go on. Your disease is not the world. People have kids and dilemmas and issues and stories that I want to hear about, and to be a part of outside of cancer. The continuum still goes on.
In a lopsided, beautiful tree, the continuum still goes on.
“Metastatic” means “terminal.” There is no sugarcoating this. It means that someday, sooner or later, I will die from cancer.
At first there is the shock of this, wave after wave of grief, and then the settling.
Sand and water.
And the full panorama of what is left.
I stand and ask myself What am I seeing? What do I notice? And there is wreckage of course: scars, family worries, fear, a constant checking of accounts, depression, anger, grief. Job loss, a haze of ache-filled and tired days.
And I take those in. They are fallen brick and mortar. Splintered wood. Animal bones.
But soon some bird flies home, calls to kin. I am forced to look up, see a friend calling, a bit of sky.
Water. Sunlight that does not burn. And shade, respite in the form of kindness. There has been so much kindness.
Both coexist here. Both wreckage and love. It is an island of its own, this strange and sad and sometimes beautiful place called “terminal cancer.”
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?
Imagine a large, plastic worm that drools liquid constantly. It is shoved through your chest skin and into your armpit, and its stomach sac, attached with a lengthy tube, wanders and slips over your belly like a rogue balloon.
Imagine that this worm’s belly must be drained twice a day. In the lengthy, slow, meandering draw down from your flesh into its rotund collections, there are flesh bits that look like fingers, raw chicken, fetuses.
Sleep on your back. Do not raise your arm.
Hourly you must shove this worm’s unruly flailings back into your pants.
Imagine that the reddish-orange fluid that gathers in the pool of this squirming hellion’s plastic gut is not blood. It is liquid detritus to be removed from the flood site. At times the colors of it evoke a sunset, which is pleasant enough except for the pus.
Getting dressed: 1. Place your shirt overhead first. 2. Let the garment rest on your shoulders for a few seconds. The tube must settle. 3. Slowly, so as not to shift your inwardly slithering medical reptile “buddy,” raise your arm and slide it gently through the sleeve. 4. Wait 10 seconds. 5. Repeat with the other arm. 6. Breathe a sigh of relief: the drain stayed.
In considering architectural innovations, ponder the labyrinth. Who is the monster? Who is the girl?
Each flesh bit that leaves the body may be a part of the disease. One might celebrate. Might.
Imagine removing your clothes. The shower water rushes. The wildly gesticulating worm of tubular regurgitations must be subdued and restrained for the cleansing, and so, like a madhouse warden, you tape and tape and tape it not to a chair, but to your skin. Supervise its movement. There will be no violence today.
Absolution? Only with its removal. Call the doctor.
Oh parasite, oh lollygagging and lengthy leftover lap lap lapping and long-remaining lily of the surreal translucent and post-surgical liquid stem linking loss to luck, little to less, longing to love and back again, you’re a lazy lurid river, a milliliter lover, a sewage leaver, convenience killer, a bendable lamentable wily water lure, a makes-it-hard-to-hold my daughter and my husband lank and lowbred dirty and late single-string lyre.
We recently had a company called Magic Hour provide a free photo shoot for our family. They do this work pro bono for people with cancer, and we are so grateful. The photographer who worked with us, Melissa of Icarian Photography, was wonderful. She made us feel instantly at ease. I have been in the mind of legacy lately, and what could be left for my daughter and husband, and so it was such a relief and gift to have this offered.
Here are a few shots:
I like to read. A lot. On days when fatigue wears me down, I rest here. Sometimes I close my eyes and the same soft breeze that brushes the Golden Gate wafts through those curtains. I remember the outside world, and I remember the long wide ocean that moves not far from me.
Our messy garden. The cherry tomatoes have gone bonkers. The colors and bees and flowers cheer me up. Sometimes the best living is not organized. In disarray you might find your heart.