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

Still Alive at Forty-Five: An Ode to the Node

Posted by: julia

Tagged in: solipsistic , reflect , record , metaphorical , memory , life , lessons , identity work , cancer

I turned forty-five yesterday, which is starting to feel like a pretty significant chunk of time spent whirling around the sun, feeling the seasons change over and over again. I’ve passed in and out of a few life stages by now, enough so that I feel like I’ve maybe even learned a few things, and had some pretty significant experiences. (Oh, but there’s so much more to learn and do....I intend to pack it all in as much as I can for as long as I can!)

In many ways, yesterday was just another day (albeit with a somewhat more sparkly than usual outfit). I did the same things I always do on a Wednesday: appointments, errands, lunch with my Dad, playing mom taxi, supervising homework...and trying to fit in a little writing somewhere. But in other ways, yesterday felt different. Special. It was my birthday which is always a great excuse for me to practice being “all about me”, but as anyone who’s read this blog in past years knows, my birthday is also my “cancer-versary”: the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. This particular birthday marked twenty-two years since I heard those fateful words from a doctor I’d met only once before: “the bad news is, it’s cancer.” Twenty-two years is a long time. I was only twenty-three when I was diagnosed. That means that this time next year, I’ll have spent more of my life being a cancer survivor than not. Huh. That’s trippy for me to think about, especially when I think about the way that this experience and this identity marker has ebbed and flowed and affected my life. I’m still here, which is awesome—no, I really mean that adjective, for once: I am full of awe. How did that happen? I could so easily have not been here, if things had gone even a little differently twenty-two years ago. Or I could be here but in a completely different space, more painful, less growth-ful. Life is so delicate, so complex and mysterious in its unfurling, clear only occasionally and even then mostly just in reconstructive hindsight. What’s cool, though, is that every year on my birthday, the day that has become my personal contemplative holiday, I am able (in fact, encouraged) to access those feelings of awe and mystery again, and that is a gift I was given. Given gratis, just because, with no judgment around how hard I fought or didn’t fight for healing, or whether I “deserved” either the cancer or the resultant epiphanies. It was just given, and the other awesome thing is that it keeps being given to me, if I only look for it. So here I am, looking.

I wrote a pretty good piece on last year’s birthday about my takeaway lessons from the cancer experience twenty years down the road, and I don’t have any huge new breakthrough epiphanies to add to that list. But what I have noticed, as I look in the rear-view mirror and see this life-changing event receding farther and farther down the road, is how I have incorporated all those lessons into my outlook on life now. It has been a gradual change, a slow motion dancing with destiny, like the way a tree will sculpt itself into a particular arch as it reaches away from the shade and into the light. I’m still the same tree, rooted in the same soil, but I’ve spent a long time reaching—stretching—for additional nourishment as I grow. My overall shape is different now than it once was, even though it’s made from the same bark and branches, leaves and sap.

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.

Today is my birthday (yay!), but for those of you who've been around for awhile, you know it's also the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis (Stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma). Of particular note today, however, is that it's also a Big Number anniversary: 20 years. 20 years! That's a damn big number. 20 years since I heard a new doctor in a new town say to me, "well, I've got good news and bad news. The bad news's cancer. The good news is, if you had to get any kind of cancer, this is the kind to get." 20 years have passed since that big-fat-pushpin-on-the-map-of-life moment, and boy howdy am I a different, more evolved, more experienced person now. I feel both pleased and disquieted that so much time has gone by: pleased because, yeah, I kicked cancer's ass and lived to tell the tale, and disquieted because woah, how'd I get old enough to be able to so easily and clearly recall something that happened 20 years ago? 

Because it feels like only yesterday, in some ways. I can so easily call up the anxiety, fear, physical pain, and grief; the courage I had to summon and sustain; the love I was surrounded with; and the sense of vertiginous change touching and transforming everything I thought I had or knew. It was a potent, transformative cocktail whose hangover will probably last my whole life, though it certainly is fading with time and with the addition of other pushpin moments to the mix. I'll always have that "cancer survivor" identity with me, even though it's not a central one to me anymore except in particular times and places.

One thing is for certain, I'm still glad that I have this personally defining moment to come back to every year, something to really remind me that life is short and uncertain and beautiful and kind (yes, kind) in its random assignation of growth-inducing suffering. I didn't enjoy the suffering, but damn I appreciate having suffered, grown, and moved on. Here's to the next 20 years--may they go by as juicy and full as the last 20, and give me as many opportunities to keep evolving as these last 20 have. 

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