One of my coping methods is stupid humor. So originally I titled this piece, Cancer to Left of Me, Pokers to the Right, Here I Am…but the piece turned into something more thoughtful. I needed to make that joke since I’m getting a second biopsy to see if this is a one scoop or two surgery. The last two weeks have crawled by, and yet the difference between before May 17th and now feels like an eon.
In all moments of trauma, there are several standard responses: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and face. I think I’ve done them all just in the course of a weekend. I’ve purged some of the stuff of our home, (fight –pretend everything’s normal by trying to overachieve), I’ve binge watched the first two seasons of 30 Rock (flee into own world complete with headphones). I’ve felt stuck in a loop of what if it’s too late? What if it’s too late now? (Freeze). I’ve shopped doctors and looked for who has the shiniest credentials…and I’ve wept at mass. I’ve made bucket lists for every summer including COVID 2020, and not once did I ever put, “undergo amputation of my chest” with weeks after of recovery. However, I also never put “face a potentially fatal disease.” My list for 2021 does include, get rid of it. I didn’t put anything else on the list.
My initial observation about having cancer is one becomes hyper aware of every ache, pain, fatigue and oddness. Eating a french fry, was it too much fast food? What other health issues have I ignored? Is it the cummulative consequence of coifing volumes of Diet Coke sufficient to fill Lake Erie over the decades since college? Not enough kale –well yes, because I never eat it. Too much sugar? Well probably because it’s ever present in everything and I love sweets. Lacking Turmeric or excessive caffiene –yes and yes.
Adjusting diet will help…but it’s really irritating when it is suggested that merely eating differently would make Cancer evaporate. It feels a little like if only you prayed more or exercised more…which implies somehow this disease was earned/merited. I also know, right now everything irks, and that’s not normal for me so I know it’s stress and fear combined so I’m trying to ignore the temptation to snap. Add to this mix my wanting this to be already over, and you get a me that is constantly in contradiction with herself.
Family members want to Marie Kondo the whole house in preparation and farm out everyone for the summer to unsuspecting relatives. I’m holding onto the seconds at the same time, wondering if I will feel overwhelmed. I don’t know what I need, much less want, other than to get going. I’d rather be on the road to recovery than in the waiting room for getting started. This desire to “hurry up” conflicts with the standard medical process of all things, which seems to be, “wait.” It feels rather like an upside down roller coaster, and I know I must ride it, but for right now, I’m just waiting in line. Hurry up, wait.
Calling feels like doing something, so I pester the doctors with questions. While they listen and respond very professionally, I know for them this is old news. I’m just one of many. I’m the object of the event. It’s rather like Cancer has me because to me, the cancer seems so much bigger than me. How must the man on the matt have felt at that direction from Christ, “Take up your matt and walk.” Did he doubt? Did he worry? Am I refusing to pick up my matt by not grasping at every helpful suggestion, or am I refusing to be desperate? I’m not sure.
So I call this doctor. Schedule that appointment. Push the phone line. Wait. Watch a Ted Talk. Read a study. Talk to survivors. Worry. Look at pictures. Wonder. Worry I’m worrying too much. Worry I’m worrying too little. See, I’m stuck in the middle again.
When you have breast cancer in one breast, you notice halves…like half moons, half gallons, half off, half baked. You get lumps in your throat at stupid stuff like cheesy emotive commericals and then think about how much you hate lumps. Lumps are the problem. You start to vent and “Get things off your chest,” and realize, that’s the goal.
Telling the story over and over again feels like wallowing or being desperate for attention. Telling becomes tiresome, because it means the conversation will be about cancer, no matter what else it’s about. Not telling means every feeling will feel like it’s masking the reality of cancer, no matter what else it’s about. It’s a constant push and pull and even innocent questions like, “How do you feel?” become fraught with peril if the other person doesn’t know or if they do. How do you tell people? Do you have to tell people? When should you tell people? Why? How do you say, “fine” and mean it when you’re staring at something where you just don’t know?
In my lighter moments, I joke about losing five pounds of fat the fast way. “Good bye lefty!” and it’s okay. When I’m scared, I worry we’re not moving fast enough. I can hear Julia Sugarbaker reeming out the male doctor who didn’t address breast cancer swiftly. “You’re a seemingly kind, benevolent authority figure who tells women to let you do their worrying for them. Well, there’s just one thing wrong with that—you don’t have to do the dying.” with each day that the process of getting this beaten gets delayed. When it starts to loom, I want time to slow to a crawl, if only because, I know recovery will be hard and I’ve cried. We compare it to the familiar, childbirth, braces, surgery, and know all of them fall short.
For a few days, Cancer blunted everything. It still dulls prayer…not because I don’t know I should pray, but because I feel like the paralyzed man, I feel stuck. It’s been heartening to know from the many who have reached out, that there are many trying to break open the roof to place my needs before Christ. Right now, I’m reduced to using the rosary beads as a petitionary prayer –it’s not rich, it’s foxhole anxious and hyper aware of being foxhole anxious…where prayer feels like it’s doing nothing, and often gets done in a stacato and stuttering fashion. I know God takes it and knows exactly where I am…but it still persist in being a labor of endurance rather than devotion at the moment. God knows I love Him. He also knows I’m damn weak. Both and…that’s what all this means…being sick, yet offered healing, weak yet persistent. All the contradictions change. They are no longer either ors, they are both ands.
My grandfather said this, as did my dad. “Sooner or later, you’ll fall to your knees and bawl like a baby.” and that’s pretty much where I am if I let myself fall too deeply into feeling. I’m at the cross trying not to fawn, trying not to freeze, trying not to fight, trying not to flee. I’m trying to face Jesus. I’m trying to face this through Him. And I’ll be praying to have faced this. Praying to hear, “take up your matt and walk.” and realize I should first hope for, “Your sins are forgiven.” Christ takes us in all our messy both and reality and blesses it.
My husband walks by and kisses my forehead, a reminder that I am loved, I am loved by those here and those in Heaven and by the One who rules Heaven. For the moment, the cancer feels like a matt I can both pick up and carry.