20. Looking in the Rearview With Eyes on the Road

A quick update: My radiation sessions are going well.  I’m a third done and there has already been a significant reduction on the mass in my pelvis, much to the surprise of the radiation oncologist (apparently it usually takes longer to see results, especially for the type of cancer I have).  I’m still dealing with low-level hip pain, but everything is highly manageable.  Onward!

True to my word, I spent time this week looking back and quantifying those things that I might have lost since diagnosis, as a way to acknowledge and clear the trail moving forward with a lighter soul and psyche.  Words of a song I heard last week have been on my mind, from David Letterman’s, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”  He was interviewing Jay-Z and highlighted singer-songwriter Madison Ryann Ward, who has a gorgeous voice.  She sings:

Keep me in your mirror
But don’t take your eyes off the road
Holding on won’t get us any nearer
Cuz we got a long way to go

These lyrics resonate because I’m constantly scanning the world around me: front, back and sides.  It makes sense to keep your past as part of your story -- as it does shape who you are in this moment -- but to also not turn around and have your back to your present and future.  I know I keep saying it, but for me, there needs to be room for all of it.

I started the process with an emotional release, a big sob in the tub before Dave got home from work -- because really, nobody can hear that without being compelled to try to help or fix.  I wanted to purposefully evoke feelings of sadness and loss, to dig underneath and see what was living there.  To get the eye ducts flowing, my thoughts were along the lines of how deeply cancer sucks, how hard treatment can be, how I really, really, really don’t want to do this anymore, how badly I want to go back to my “regular” life -- the one where I can eat what I want when I want, workout hard, travel, live life well, etc.

I do love a good cry in the bath.  It’s so quiet and warm, and afterwards you get to clean your face, lay back and relax and soak and breathe until you’re ready to move on.  And there is definitely something to be said for giving your sadness/grief/pain some air.

On the first or second anniversary of my mother’s passing, a dear friend from university and I had a really insightful conversation about grief.  We were on the phone across continents and she shared an analogy with me that has stuck to this day.  She said that it’s like grief (or whatever it is you’re holding onto) is caught in quicksand, it sinks to the bottom and is mired in the sludge, but if you are patient the natural forces will bring it to the surface again.  And when it does come to the surface, it gets air and sunlight and hence you gain perspective, and it’s forever changed when it sinks again… each and every time.  We know that it’s the lack of oxygen in quicksand that will kill you, we’d survive if we could just hold your breath long enough to make it back to the surface.

The day before I first started treatment, a friend of mine who conquered her bout with cancer a decade prior gave me a pre-chemo pep talk.  I asked her what her biggest learning was through her experience.  She said that letting go of the “cancer story,” to her was the most important.  To put down the desire and effort to try to figure out the trigger or the cause, the goal of course being to reverse engineer a solution.  She said that everyone with cancer has a story about it, and the story can keep you stuck.  She encouraged me to put down my story, and to move forward from right where I was.  I have to say, at that time I was so overwhelmed that I had limited capacity to invest in that story anyway.  I told her that I had put it on my list to get to at some point in the future, and that it sounded like I should just cross it off!  So cross it off I did.  It’s testament again to the quality of the resources I felt like were already lined up for me to face this challenge in the way I wanted to.

I had some significant insights in the aftermath of the sob.  As your body relaxes and those sore feelings ebb away, there’s a bareness that allows a more clear and objective view of the situation, without the cloud of emotion.  Here’s what I found:

Cancer Diagnosis: I don’t care about the type of cancer in my body.  I don’t care how or why it appeared.  My simple thought about it is that it developed in a perfect storm, and that I have the resources and capacity to overcome it.  I know in my bones that it will be a blip on the radar of my life, one of those experiences that in the future will define me, not because of having it, but because of how I dealt with it.  I do appreciate that my diagnosis gives me a flexibility in treatment options.

Cancer Treatment: My path has been far less debilitating than experienced by others.  Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation have so far been minimally invasive… I still have all the body parts that I came into the world with.  By contrast, I’m always the one in the room with good color in my skin, a smile on my face and the ability to move around unencumbered.  Given the severity of my diagnosis, this is indeed a blessing… and is not lost on me for a second.

Physical Body: Yes, I’ve definitely lost strength, stamina and muscle tone, no doubt about it.  However, I’m starting to rebuild, and while starting from square one I can be really mindful about how to do it.  I have all the time I need.  And, a few days ago, I did laps in the pool for 30 minutes and did very well, it felt amazing.  Rebuilding from cancer and treatment is no different than doing so from any other illness that knocks you on your ass for a while, period.

Job: I have not been at work since my trip to the ER in late July last year and I’ll remain that way for the immediate future.  While I never felt that my job or occupation defined who I was, it did define what I did and I enjoyed it.  I do miss being part of that corporate team.  However, it hasn’t gone anywhere and I know that I’ll be able to rejoin as soon as I’m able.  The day of diagnosis dictated that my full-time job changed from corporate to intensely personal.  I’m still researching, planning and learning just as I would at the office.  Of course it’s different, but it can’t be defined as a hard loss.

Diet & Fasting: I’m currently on the most restrictive diet out there, but it really agrees with my constitution.  I’m thankful for all those years tweaking my diet, doing cleanses, and figuring out (and uncoupling) blood sugar and my emotions.  All in all, it’s been a fairly easy transition, although the 18-hour a day fasting thing requires organization.  And, it does impact time with friends and being away from the house… but it isn’t incapacitating.  It hopefully it won’t be too long before I can start to include some cheat days, and the goal far outweighs any restriction in this area.  It’s just perspective, right?

Schedule: My current schedule is full-on.  It’s not ideal, but it’s not like I had a ton of free time Monday through Friday anyway.  Life’s circumstances always dictate this, and not confined to dealing with cancer.

I can’t think about all of these factors without thinking about my mother.  My strength is a product of both of my parents and my family, but my steely resolve does come from my mum.  I can be a bulldog when I need to be, just like she was.  When I think back to her journey through cancer that ultimately took her life, I draw wisdom for her experience, and also from my experience as her daughter in it.  Starting my journey with cancer, I’d already thought about my choices if I was ever faced with the same thing, and was clear about what I might do differently.  I remember writing early on that I was overwhelmed, sad and anxious when diagnosed, but not devastated.  I think the lack of devastation came from already having thought about it.  It short-tracked me being able to kick into gear, it enabled me to be able to tell my husband that I might bypass treatment if that was ultimately what was right for me.  I began the journey from a place of grounded strength with space to start to figure things out.  Luckily, my experience with traditional treatment has yielded good results, supported of course by my integrative approach.

When I told Dave about my experience with this process and laid out my insights, he commented that is sounded like the cancer experience for me has been more about adjustment than loss.  I agreed!  So the moral of this story is that I haven’t lost anything that I can’t regain with time.  All in all, looking back has been an incredibly helpful experience to go through. I do feel better.  My eyes are again focused on the trail that lies before me, while continually glancing in the rearview for continued perspective.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those who would say, “Cancer is a gift!” because I think that’s complete and utter bullshit.  Nobody in their right mind would ever choose it… but it does provide an opportunity, and it’s up to each person with cancer to decide what exactly to do with it.