I spent the day yesterday on my porch, happily booking and planning yet another fall break trip to Disney World for me and my girl. Now, it doesn’t escape me that I went to Disneyland this summer and got a beach condo for a few weeks too. So even though I was able to book this trip with free flights on Southwest and got free hotel with my Amex points and I work while on said vacations, I still have a twinge of guilt, but just a weensy one…because I had cancer.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to tell you that life is different after cancer. This fact is especially true after momentarily ridding yourself of a cancer that has a penchant for visiting again; for showing up like an unexpected guest randomly knocking at your door even years later, when you had sorta forgotten about them and thought them surely dead by now anyway.
In one of my earlier blogs, Thigh Cancer, I unmasked the belief set of all cancer chicks that the grim reaper, frustrated by his thwarted attempts to finish the job the first time is lurking just around the next corner, waiting to pounce again and deliver the final blow. Because of our post traumatic stress, every little ache or pain smells like cancer to us and just a whiff of it stirs the shit pot. For example, currently, I am trying to decide if the pain in my big toe I’ve had for a week now is toe cancer or just satellite pain from a bone met.
So while I’ve talked a lot about the fear that becomes our constant traveling companion in the aftermath of cancer and how it makes us all a wee bit neurotic, I would like to point out (being Suzy Sunshine and all) that there is another less dark side to it. In fact a shiny side to this coin that we carry in pocket post cancer, round one.
Recently, I went through the oh so tragic but necessary rite of passage of taking my first-born to college. As our nests emptied, The Girlfriends and I had lots of tearful talks over coffee about how fast time had gone by and how quiet our homes had become. As we grieved together, it occurred to me that we all grieved for different reasons. Some just plain missed their kid and some (moi included) weren’t quite sure how to define themselves now. But most often, I heard the lament of things that didn’t get done in all those 18 years; that they had never gotten to travel as much as they hoped with their kid or never quite got the bonus room finished for the kid to use. Grief echoed with the sounds of lost chances and put off opportunities.
My own reflections of what I grieved summoned up all that we had done (and would no longer do.) The family Disney trips and coaching Odyssey of the Mind. Trips to random caverns, odditrocities like Foamhenge and Rock City/Ruby Falls. Afternoons in my kitchen after school, baking and creating everything from white chocolate covered apples to look like Halloween skulls and candy apples, to cupcakes with a heart baked into the center on Valentines Day. All the peppermint meringues and cookies and chocolate dipped pretzels we made at Christmas, pumpkins carved and crafts made. Big dinners here at the Ranch with the house bursting at the seams with the drama cast and birthday parties that were home spun. Sick days where I was there to hold back hair while tummies emptied, chaperoning field trips and pulling them out of school for opening day of the fair. Waiting at the bus every day or the bubbles of talk in the first five minutes in the car after carpool at school.
I thought about all the events that had come to be, by which we kept cadence and measure in our life…our Charlie Brown Thanksgiving party with a cotton candy machine and chocolate fountain, our Kitschmas Party, the Love Bowl on Valentines Day and St. Patrick’s Day brunch. And our fall trips to Disney.
Our stuffed full of life, life.
Yes, my grieving mom tears contained lots of, “Oh, now those days are gone!” in them, but I can assure you they contained not one element of regret. Not one. No coulda, shoulda, woulda’s for this girl. Because when I watched the slide show of our life in the almost 8 years since cancer, I realize that I sucked the best out of every single minute of every single day with my kids. I used every day not extravagantly but wisely, and made each day as big and as full as I could. Better than it ever would have been without cancer. Bigger because of cancer. I realized that our overstuffed life was filled of the stuff that I might well have said, “Maybe we will do that one day,” had it not been for the looming nature of this suck ass disease. Not one missed opportunity adorned my grief list. And not one child was left to hold their own hair on sick days either.
It was then that I realized that Cancer and all its fear mongering and creeping had actually done a little good (I am sure inadvertently, as cancer does not have good intent.) Cancer and its ugly recurrent nature gave this little tentative and frugal soul permission to live life differently and less cautiously. Cancer gave me permission to indulge a little more. Cancer gave me a shove to open my own practice so I could be there every day after school and set my own schedule around the kids and travel and fun with them. I did more than I ever would have done in my life had it not been for my fear of what was lurking around the next corner and while not exactly a good reason to do something, I’ll take it.
Cancer sealed the deal on many a trip by asking me to consider how I would feel if I didn’t do it and the next mammo came up dirty. As awful as cancer is, I must credit it with becoming the tipping point between doing and not doing, You know why? Because no one wants to be sitting in a chemo chair the second time around saying, “Dog gone it, why didn’t I go to See Rock City when I was well?” Heck, no one even wants to imagine sitting there thinking that, so we say, “What the hell, I’m in! Let’s blow this pop stand and get to Tennessee!”
Because of cancer, I found myself grieving for all we had done, not for all that we had not done. I found myself grieving all the things I am certain would have never happened without cancer goading me on.
And that my friend, is good grief.
Enormous is the difference between getting busy living and getting busy dying.
In those first years out of the chemo gate, we cancer girls all getting busy dying (and don’t lie and say you don’t cause ya’ll know it’s true). We, and our families try to frantically try to fill our days with the things bucket lists are made of. But somewhere around the fourth time we get the yearly all clear/NED, we begin to settle into a groove of living. A groove that is wider than it would have been without cancer; a busier groove too. We don’t fill our days, but instead use up every last drop of our days. Our bucket lists begin to include the ordinary, like waiting for a school bus and carving pumpkins. We blow the balloon up bigger than we ever thought it could expand, using every last breath we get; never again wasting an exhale. Never, never again underestimating the value of an inhale.
Back then (and even now) people who will go unnamed tried to guilt me about how I got busy living, whispering in my ear, “You can’t live your life like that, in fear of ‘what if.’” But my traveling buddy Cancer in turn, put a firm hand on my back and whispered in my other ear, “Ignore them. It’s okay to go to Disney World and work a little less; it’s okay to do a little more than most. Just don’t go broke. And whatever you do, DON’T TOUCH THE IRA. Just keep it real.” But those bad kind of busybodies will shake their heads muttering under their breath, “Two trips to Disney in a year?? Two weeks at the beach??” They will remind you yet again, quite loudly this time that, “You can’t live your life that way” and their eyes will glaze over when you try to explain how important every minute is to you.
DON’T LISTEN. Guilt mongering is a carcinogen in itself.
My blog friend Katie the All Knowing and Wise, so rightfully and righteously said recently (about our fear of recurrence,) “In my experience, if you want to successfully maintain a long-term relationship with people who’ve been through cancer treatment, you have to understand, accept, and make room for this.”
Amen Amen Amen Sista!
Make room indeed. Of course she was talking about room for the fear, but I might add that busy living requires space too. Big balloons fill rooms.
Look, I get that any of us could go at any time. But having dodged the reaper once we now carry this little coin, this little reminder in our pocket that our time on earth is only as good as the time between mammograms. Because before cancer, we thought that dying early was something that happened to other people.
There are two sides to every coin though. When you pull the coin from your pocket and flip it into the air on any given day, one of two things will happen. One, you will see the dark side, the tail end of cancer and you will get busy dying. Or two, the brilliant flicker of the sun will catch the coin in its mid-air spin and you will catch it too and see the good side, the heads, telling you to head directly into life and get busy living. Heads you win, tails you lose darlin’.
You can’t take it with you, but you can leave it behind; you can leave memories that come from a thoroughly used up life. Me, I want to lie on my death-bed with a smug little grin saying, “I did it all! I used this life up and I saw Rock City and rode Splash Mountain 14 times in one night and ate cotton candy dipped in chocolate for Thanksgiving dinner every year!”
And with my last breath, my last oh-so-valued inhale, blow once more and pop the balloon.
No regrets darlin’, no regrets.
“You don’t know it yet, but we’re the lucky ones.”
Email Lance Armstrong received just days after his diagnosis, from a cancer survivor