thoughts on living with cancer


Midwest, USA
May 20
At the midpoint of the journey's life I found myself lost in a dark forest with no straight path I could see anywhere. M.L. Rosenthal's translation of Dante's La Commedia Divina Diagnosed with ovarian and bladder cancers, I received an entirely new subject for writing and a challenge to intensify the second half of my life.


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APRIL 22, 2012 6:13PM

Springtime in Chemo and Elsewhere

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Round 4, 2007

            One of the hidden blessings of chemo is seeing old friends in new ways. Today Marie used part of a vacation day to take me to and from chemo. So far, she’s coordinated meals right after my surgery, come by the hospital to read me Billy Collins poems, hosted an eating-and-movie afternoon extravaganza, offered her home for a post-chemo celebration, brought me two sprays of forsythia from her yard, and offered to sew some spring hats. She also calls periodically to ask if and what I’m eating. Tonight on the drive home, she, fellow introvert, asked if I’d prefer to talk or just be quiet, as well as asking if I needed to stop anywhere. The latter request is common; the former has never been asked directly before, and once again I appreciate Marie’s subtlety. . . This sort of thing happens, to one degree or another, every chemo run—a new appreciation for the gifts my friends have always had, and which I now need. No one person can be the ultimate, perfect, all-in-one-caregiver, but each person offers his or her gifts.

We stopped at a local sandwich shop on the way home. I didn’t think that I could eat an entire sandwich, bloated as I was from the chemo, but I did. It was snowing, as it sometimes does in April here, and after my nap I noticed that the snow was sticking. The beauty of it doesn’t move me, I wrote at 2:40 the next morning, in my manic post-chemo phase. I’m ready for spring. They’ve planted beautiful pink and white tulips on the quad at the hospital.

Marie had also checked out from the library a book she thought I’d like, Shouts and Whispers: Twenty-One Writers Speak About Their Writing and Their Faith. I’d read one of the essays, “Glory Into Glory” by Walter Wangerin, that evening over my supper. The essay concluded,  “ . . . if . . . you’re willing to look with absolutely clean and clear eyes at what exists among human beings, if you’re willing not to lie to yourself about the maggots, you will come with healing in your wings.”

            The idea of not lying to myself about the maggots hits hard, I wrote. I have done everything in my power to be upbeat, to think of healing images, to speak positive words—even praise for the dear people, friends and professionals alike, who are being so kind to me. I think Pollyanna gets a bad rap from those of us whose usual m.o. is cynicism. I don’t talk much about the maggots—when I tell people now about the white noise and sirens in my ears that could portend hearing loss, they are astonished, because I’ve not mentioned this before. Many of us have vested interests in seeing everything in a positive light, putting a good spin on everything. So, for example: Yes, today I had to get a shot of Aranesp to boost my white blood cell count, which hurts and which the FDA warns—are you ready for this?—may cause cancer. But the nurse gave me the injection in my abdomen this time, and it hurt less. And no one is making noises about take-home shots—isn’t that wonderful? But the maggots are there in the simple fact of my being in the chemo room at all, my belly swelling with the fluid that is to save me, in “losing” a day of sunshine and snow.

I wrote later that day, I’ve finally figured out that managing cancer is like taking a second job. It’s that time-consuming, or feels like it right now. In addition to chemo and the weekly blood draws, there’s keeping track of meds, making sure I don’t run out, and scheduling and keeping other appointments, such as those for massage and acupuncture. Everything is at least twenty minutes away. There’s making sure I eat right and get all my supplements. And the necessary times with friends, either in person or by phone, that keep me going. It’s a lot, and sometimes I weary of it all.

Yet grace was everywhere. The florist in my village has a Friday evening happy hour, with flowers at reduced prices. Over the years, I had come to know one young woman there. She was the one who had delivered the flowers sent after my surgery, and she continued to ask how I was doing. One afternoon I was running errands; on her break, she saw me and dashed across the street to ask how I was and to give me a hug. Living alone and solitary, I had few options for touch. A moment later and I’d have missed her, been on my car and headed home. It was crazy, I thought, to believe that some god had arranged my being downtown at the exact moment of her break. And yet, why not?

Even one of the phlebotomists where I stopped for the weekly blood draw so that Dr. Josh could track my numbers knew me—or at least recognized my hats. She asked how I was doing, how I felt, and I chose to believe that she and all the medical people really cared and wanted to know. As a child with scoliosis, the neckpiece of my brace the visible sign of my being (as I thought of it) deformed, I’d scorned and shrugged off the caring attention of adults, feeling they pitied me. I wanted, above all else, not to be pitied. Cancer turned me into one huge, needy vacuum cleaner, sucking up every ounce of concern and affection. And my friends were happy to provide both.

Beth thought we needed a transformative event and so arranged tickets to a Chanticleer concert at St. Peter in Chains, the church with perfect acoustics. Unlike poor old Peter, I was feeling quite liberated—I’d driven the hour plus to Dan and Beth’s, the furthest I’ve driven since chemo began. And there was the music, ranging from plainsong to modern, perfectly sung by twelve men in tuxedos. We were in the balcony with only a few other people; it seemed so regal that Beth said she felt like a queen in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, for whom her court musicians were performing. On the drive home, we talked deeply, as people will in the dark in a car. Now it is morning, and I have crept upstairs for a cup of tea and a half banana to tide me over until Beth awakens and stirs. My downstairs window looks out on the “Mexican” patio (Beth calls it Oaxaca—“Shall we have breakfast in Oaxaca?” she asked last night)—not yet lush with the plants Beth makes flourish, but full of promise. As my own life feels.


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Excellent, well written post, your words swept me up and took me along for the ride. Hard to do that with me.
good honest writing of the process of closing down/compartmentalizing when too much then opening again to the light that is most of life- the flower closing, then opening.
Am impressed with your friends who seem to understand the need for getting away and having fun a well as being there. Those of us who have danced your dance can especially appreciate your authentic voice.
As always, you teach me so much about those empty spaces between my mother's words as she fought cancer. Thank you for continuing the story...
Beautifully written.
Wow, again another clear and expressive description. You're so amazing as a writer. I'm glad you're here to write about the grace and the maggots. I'm glad I'm here to read you!
Thank you for sharing your story and thank you writing so very well.
Thanks to all of you for reading and leaving such kind comments. I am glad to be composting this experience and to find it helpful for others.
The hug from the florist brought a lump to my throat. I love it when good writing does that. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself so beautifully with us.