I know right? Can you believe it? December 12 marks ten years since I was told, “Unfortunately, you have cancer,” and 5 years since I began the blog. When I began writing, my intent was to explore (and work out in my busy buzz-buzz little noggin) the trauma and heebie jeebies of living in that precarious space that is the first five years after breast cancer. Writing, I found, was like letting the steam off a pressure cooker. Bit by bit, week by week, with each new post, the pressure lessened and the intense push of emotional junk in my brain against my skull ceased.
After Five Years in Cancerland, I indeed, had accrued a hoard of emotional junk. A friend politely said after listening to my weepiness, “Jesus girl, you have a LOT of stuff rattling around in that head of yours.” Indeed it often felt like ALL OF IT MIXED TOGETHER–a crazy aunt in the attic- a banshee screeching senselessly as she wandered.
Writing, it turned out for this scattered and exhausted looping mind, turned out to be one of those Major Organizer ladies. She efficiently walked in and stopped the hoard in its tracks. She spent weeks thoroughly sweeping through all the junk drawers, sucking the dirt out of the nooks and crannies in my brain and tidily putting things various marked boxes. Labels, like “Thigh Cancer” and “Cancer Fatigue” emerged, and it became easier and easier to toss things in where they belonged, as I wrote and wrote.
Emotions and crazy thinking were released like bags of trash to the universe, a week at a time.
And then something more magical happened. Salve for wounded places in my heart and brain came back to me, as I listened to the songs and echoes of my blog sisters in Cancerland in comments each week. My readers, mostly Cancer chicks, sat patiently with me each week (like those nice psychologists do on hoarders) as I picked up each item, one item at a time to sort. They quietly waited as I turned stuff over and over in my hands, and listened to what it meant to me. They heard my reluctance to deal with it. With no shaming, and in so not judgy way, they helped me dig through my trash—helping me chose what to keep, what to trash, what had value, and what to donate to the universe. I am eternally grateful for those who sat with me through that tedious sort, and for those offered labels when I had exhausted all those my wee brain could muster. “Twang arm” and “Grumblers for the Cure” being some echoed back. I wrote and wrote each week, until finally the looping stopped as I was finally, out of gas.
I credit those women for getting me to After Ten Years. One would think the second five years would be easier to cope with and keep organized…but I am here to tell you that there are still so many lessons in that space of still uncertain, but not quite as uncertain as the first five years, space.
But I have lived.
I have lived to see things I literally begged God in the dark of the night on a pillow wet with tears, to live to see–proms and graduations and homecoming dances, just the day-to-day life of teenagers and kids fledging from the nest. I have lived to see the joy on my wee ones faces for 5 more Christmases and 5 more birthdays. Disneyland, San Francisco, Niagara Falls….are all now off the bucket list.
I lived to see losses great and small. I have lived to lose the most important people in the world to me– to death, and in other intangible ways. I have lost my dad and my beloved Scout the Wonderdog, and while not rocket science that people and dogs don’t live forever, it is still deeply sad. But I am glad I lived, to hold their hands and paws, as I walked them home.
This last year, the year I was sliding into year ten, has turned out to be worse than Cancer. Yet, I find, I have now lived my way into perspective. Because I lived, cancer has been talked down to size; an itty bitty dot on the horizon behind me at times. See, I once thought (like say, five years ago) that Cancer was the worst thing, the hardest thing, the cruelest thing that ever happened to me. My handy yardstick, attached to my hip, used to be, “Well, it’s not Cancer.” That yardstick has been replaced now. I am glad. Cancer is not the worst thing that can happen to you, losing your Pop and sweet, sweet dog in a month are, as are losing people you love in other ways. But still, I lived through it. I am lucky.
I lived on and learned how, even after ten years, cancer and PTSD still change to this day how I deal with illness– in anyone, dad, dog, friend, myself or my kids. How “illness” still has the power to flip that switch, to set off old familiar alarms and anxiety and make me kind of cray-cray. The smell and feel of hospitals is overwhelming to me still, stealth, like carbon monoxide seeping into my cells. It’s invisible to others, but inside the medical doors I am in constant anxiety; feeling sick and dizzy. I have lived to learn that even being put on antibiotics, being around someone with a bad cold freaks me out, as do routine doctor visits. Thigh cancer also still looms in the rear view mirror, bouncing around in the back seat like an unruly kid, sticking its tongue out at me from time to time.
I have lived into the wisdom that PTSD is worse when anxiety robs sleep. It is completely paralyzing when I am on the losing end of the battle. And it rears its ugly head as I insist that ALL BE DONE to help, because I realize at one time, I was a lost cause and had I not insisted that ALL BE DONE to kick my cancer, I would not be writing this.
After ten years, I have learned a big lesson though. To forgive myself for the cray cray. As far as other people forgiving me, not so much, but that’s understandable and okay. A veteran recently said to me, “I don’t have PTSD, I earned my PTSD.” I don’t know that anyone can or even should be expected to understand the nuances and horrors of however you earned yours and how it shows up–which makes it mine to navigate, not theirs. I won’t beat myself up for it leaking out here and there. New cracks develop as you age and LIVE, like wrinkles on the skin.
I have realized too, that gentle and kind people recognize it for what it is and catch your tears (even though they are sometimes caustic and burn smoky holes through their hands.) They will still hold you in their now holy hands; a blanket of warmth as their words surround you like a nest. I have lived to see how lucky I am. In blogging, I heard a chorus of, “You too? Gosh I thought I was the only one.” And that is helpful. It makes you feel less cray-cray.
I have lived on these last five years, to feel the cognitive dissonance of recognizing how lucky you are, being juxtaposed with depression. How can a person who survived cancer be depressed for God’s sake? But I have lived on these last five years to feel so beaten down at times by life– the very life I begged God to let me live. I would be a BIG FAT liar if I didn’t admit that coming off this year, I was often plagued with thoughts of “Why go on?’ when everyone I loved died. This creates quite a fucked up dichotomy in your head, when you have been given the gift of more days, and now feel like they don’t matter, or are too painful to endure. But I have lived through this too.
See, we always think about and bargain with god about the fabulous things we want to live to see when we are diagnosed, but forget we will live through these hard things too. I am grateful to have lived through both.
I have lived to find inside me an endless font of compassion, created by the tears I have cried. I am less judgy of others, realizing fully for the first time very deeply these last years, the walk in the shoes thing. I reach out more. I always was built this way, but now, it bubbles out to the tenth degree. This empath has become even more empathic, and better so, even more empathetic. I am glad that I lived to have my edges smoothed, and to have lived my way into laser clarity about why I am here.
After ten years, I have lived to reflect and realize how much people did for me in that space and time, to see not just how cancer affected me, but others. How kind people laid their bodies down to make bridges for me to walk on through cancer sewage, so that I can be here writing this. I get weepy when I think about how much my Pop did for me; he was my Wingman and my North Star. I am standing, fully and solidly, physically and mentally, because of him. In the quiet of my house, I weep too, when I remember a friend who saved Christmas. I have lived now five more years to decorate at Christmas with sock snowmen made when she arrived, bringing in her bags of joy to a house of a single mom with two wee little kids where cancer came knocking, blowing its toxic black smoke over everything that sparkled, just two weeks before Christmas.
I have learned that in the first five years, life is lived with a wide-angle lens, capturing a whole lot more than you would normally capture. Statistics dictate that there is a valid need to capture a bigger picture in those first five years and that is not necessarily a bad thing. But in the next five years, I have (mostly) gone back to living life with a normal lens. Yes, I still have a perpetual colored filtered lens that makes ALL things more vibrant, but life is more normal in scope.
Cancer offers less permission these days. In the beginning, Cancer was quite manic and reckless as it yelled, “Go ahead do it! You don’t know how long you have!” Nowadays, cancer shrugs its shoulders and says, “It seems like a great idea, but don’t do it on my account.”
Cancer is less of a taskmaster. Where once my life was lived with weekly chemo for a year, shots to myself in my bathroom, surgeries, daily radiation and endless re- check appointments…now we are whittled to once a year where the Big Guy (my oncologist) is thanked annually for saving my life. And I while I get a little cray-cray at those visits, cancer doesn’t rule after ten years.
I sleep soundly now. In the first five years, it was routine for Anxiety to jab its gnarly finger at me until I woke up yelling, “What? What is it?” for it to yell with its windy, halitosis-y breath, “CANCER, THAT’S WHAT!” Now, occasionally, it wakes me and whispers “cancer,” and I say, “Oh that’s all? Go back to bed, monsters aren’t real.”
I have learned that after the first five years of recklessly driving the car, CANCER has now acquired operative equivalent highway hypnosis. Its eyes drift shut periodically, nodding off as life moves down the highway. But at times, admittedly, just when there is sound sleep, its eyes snap wide open, re-righting the car back into the Cancer Lane. But mostly, after ten years, cancer has finally moved to the back seat Some days, I don’t even see cancer in my rear view mirror, and suspect it has even moved to the trunk. Some days though, there it is in perfect focus, as I glance back; it sticks its tongue out at me with its arms crossed, sullen that I don’t engage it anymore.
I have lived to fully grasp that what Scout the Wonderdog tried to teach me every day of his life was so very true–that you don’t have to be whole to be whole. That we aren’t what happens to us, we are what we make of it.
I have lived into wisdom, becoming wise to the Wiley Coyote ways of cancer with its anvils and bombs. Cancer has simply become one of the many, many merit badges on my sash. It has been lived down to size. I have lived to gather more badges, infinitely harder ones to earn, since then. Perspective comes with years of survival.
The point of all of this is that I have lived. Something I never thought I would do literally (or figuratively) after the initial “all clear” was given. I never thought I could mentally live life again, and have moments of joy again where Cancer wasn’t photobombing an otherwise idyllic moment.
Cancer hasn’t died, but has finally hibernated. Cancer has mostly left the building that is my head. Five years ago, I wondered if that would ever happen. I am happy to say that reports of cancer’s death in your head after ten years, have NOT been grossly exaggerated. Years ago, I wrote a blog called Outlive It. It didn’t mean outlive the cancer and survive, it meant, outlive the ability of cancer to haunt you, to define you. I have, after ten years, outlived cancer.
I have lived on to notice in every moment, the feel every last drop of life on my skin. Still after ten years it is there. That feeling it. In a speech at a college commencement called, “This Is Water” David Foster Wallace tells the story of two goldfish swimming along, and an older goldfish coming upon them saying (to their confusion), “How’s the water boys?” I feel the wet every day. The water is life that is not taken for granted. After ten years, I am still wet. That never goes away. This is a good thing.
But what next? This year, sliding into year ten, I suddenly realized that I only had a ten-year plan. That I never got beyond “seeing my kids graduate and not leaving wee children motherless.” Both kiddos are launched now into life plans. I never dared to consider life after ten years, perhaps thinking I would jinx it, and after all, I only asked for ten. I saw a quote today I love, that perhaps will be my motto from here on, “You didn’t come this far, to only come this far.”
I don’t think of these last ten years as a journey, but as an adventure…where initially I burst out of the gates like Carl and Russell in the movie Up, with the mentality that Adventure is Out There! My adventure began ten years ago, and continues, even after ten years. Life remains definitely sweeter. Every minute and second is still recognized and given its due honor as something I could have lost. Something I am damn lucky to have. As something I get to do, not have to do. In the first five years I felt a little like Russell—now I feel like Carl. Wise about what was given to me, wise about the need to keep looking forward to what will be, instead of getting stuck in what was, and in what happened to you.
Indeed, I have come so far after ten years, and still have many more to go, because after all, I did not come this far, to only come this far.
Thanks for listening all. You all have become my adventure, and my world.