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A blog in which Our Heroine records, reflects and wrestles with meaning. With lots of asides.

It’s that day again: my birthday, which is also my cancer diagnosis anniversary. (My 21st anniversary, for those of you who care to follow along.) After last year’s big 20th anniversary, this one feels quieter (though no less celebratory). But still, I’m glad it’s here, this anniversary. It’s a terrific birthday gift: every year on this day I get a reminder to examine my “origin story” of how I became who I am today, by reflecting on this important episode of my life. I get the opportunity, again, to reaffirm the lessons I learned and sometimes even to learn something new, or at least to spice up the core epiphanies with some interesting new flavor combos. I am incredibly grateful to still be here, another year later, enjoying this gift.

21 years out, I find that the whole cancer story is starting to take on the feel and the characteristics of legend or myth. By that I mean that most of the specific, gritty, sensory details have faded away, except for a decorative few (the discombulation of waking up from general anesthetic with a tube in my nose; the indignity of lying on the bed of a radiation machine while someone manipulates my body; the tattoos and sharpie marks on my skin that indicated the boundaries of my radiation fields; the cool, steely fingers of the radiation oncologist when she examined me...I could go on but I won’t.) But as with any good legend, the skeleton of the story is preserved: the bones of what happened when, of what the results were, and what the moral(s) of the story were. Each year I study the story skeleton like an anthropologist studying a fossil, reporting (at least to myself) on the way that this bone attached to that one, theorizing how a tug on that bone led to a corresponding motion over there, and how the whole organism evolved into the next stage. 

With everything stripped down to the essential bones, it’s easier to see the lessons. Here are some things that cancer taught me that I’ve been thinking about today (I’m sure there are more; this is just today’s/this year’s musings):

  • Cancer or any other serious illness can actually be a gift (it was to me). As I often said during the experience, it’s certainly not a preferred path to enlightenment, nor one I would wish on anyone else, but it is one--and it helped crack me open and let the light in at a precociously early age.
  • Life is uncertain. Just when you think you’re in a groove, something will disrupt your groove. Learning to dance with disruption at least lets the rest of the groove continue.
  • Priorities really do become clearer when you realize that you may not have as long to stay on this earth as you thought you would. That clarity can be re-invoked at any time.
  • It is very easy to take one’s miraculous body and continued good health for granted. Appreciate what you have while you have it, but grieving for what’s gone is appropriate (and helpful) too, as long as it doesn’t prevent you from moving on.
  • Illness is at its core a private experience. Others can empathize and support, but what is happening to your body is yours alone. Your reactions to or feelings about what is happening to your body are also yours alone.
  • Optimism and humor may or may not be curative in and of themselves, but they certainly make the whole experience more bearable (for both self and others).
  • It is important to insist on being treated with dignity and being connected with on a human level even when embroiled in the midst of routine, repetitive, institutionalized tasks.
  • Always bring your own bathrobe to medical appointments. It’s wayyyyy more comfortable and dignified than the paper disposables or ill-fitting cloth ones. And there’s no reason not to.
  • I am pretty darn brave in the face of personal threat, both physical and psychological. Recalling that bravery has helped me respond similarly in other, less dire situations.
  • Allowing others to help you is a gift you can give that gives back to you.
  • You are not only your illness, but illness is an excellent opportunity for identity work nonetheless, because it really does cause you to examine everything you currently think is part of you.
  • I’m ok with dying. Really I am. I certainly hope I can put it off as long as possible, because I have a lot of things I want to do and enjoy still, but I’m not afraid of it anymore.
  • Serious illness scares people. They don’t know how to respond to the person who is ill, especially over time or after the initial episodes have passed. Having compassion for other people’s fear makes dealing with their sometimes insensitive or rude reactions much easier. But still: you don’t have to deal with anyone else’s reactions if you don’t want to.
  • Sometimes you just have to (literally or metaphorically) lie there and breathe. Nothing else is expected of you; nothing else is needed. Movement will resume in good time.

My 2013 Intention: Streeeeetch!

Posted by: julia

I was just looking back over last year’s blog posts about the year behind and the resolutions for the year ahead, and I see that I said that my major intention for 2012 was to practice (and to create and maintain practices). I think I totally did live that intention, and I want to continue it into 2013. But the specific intention I want to set for this coming year is Stretch. In the coming year, I want to keep reminding (and convincing) myself to stretch: beyond the expected, beyond my comfort zone, beyond what I know or have known, even if just the tiniest amount. I do and I have done a lot, but if I stretch, I will find out whether or not I can do more, in a healthy challenge sort of way.

The key thing to remember about Stretch (hey self, I’m talking to you), is that by its very nature, Stretch is an elastic concept. It requires me staying flexible enough to push just a little farther whenever something new or different starts to make me feel scared or uncertain. I don’t have to go too far; just far enough to feel the stretch. And the deeper and more often I stretch, the farther I’ll be able to go the next time. (So in a way this fits very nicely into last year’s resolution to Practice.) 

All right, I have declared my intention; we shall see how it plays out over this next year. With all this practice and all this stretching, I should be winning a gold medal in the Happiness marathon by 2014!

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