Getting to the Top

Saturday, September 5, 2009

This afternoon, I hiked the Lafayette Reservoir Rim Trail – a trail I haven’t hiked since I left California over a year ago. At 4.7 miles, it’s not that far, but it has six pretty steep hills, including one that looks almost vertical! I did the loop twice, to prepare for my Peak Hike to Mt. Tam for breast cancer at the end of the month (you can see pictures on my Twitter Page). That hike is 11.5 miles, and I want to be ready.

Alone with my thoughts on the trail, I realized something: when we fall down, and have to pick ourselves back up, the hardest part is believing that things can be okay again. We might start to think, maybe I’m not special or destined for greatness after all. Maybe I’ve just been lucky the last few years, and my luck has finally run out. When I hit my bottom in Kaua’i, I thought to myself, if all I have left to look forward to in this life is unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy, why am I still going to chemo? I could not even imagine myself, in just six months, employed at a job I love, surrounded by people who make me smile every day, hiking a double loop of a trail a mere 10 weeks after finishing chemotherapy. I would have missed all this, if I had allowed myself to check out of life.

I was thinking today about Persephone and Eurydice. In Greek mythology, Persephone is the daughter of Ceres. Hades, the master of Hell, falls in love with Persephone and kidnaps her to be his bride and live with him in the Underworld. In another story, Eurydice, the wife of the musician Orpheus, dies after treading on a snake. Orpheus travels to the Underworld to bring her back and plays music for Persephone, softening her heart. Persephone tells Orpheus he can lead Eurydice back to the world above, but only if he walks in front of her, and doesn’t look back. At the last moment, though, his insecurities plague him, and he turns around, only to watch Eurydice vanish forever.

When you find yourself in Hell, you must ask yourself, am I a Persephone or a Eurydice? Is your Hell a place that you think you will just have to get used to, to learn to live in? Or is it a place where, with enough love and devotion, you can climb out of? And I’m not talking about pining away, waiting for an Orpheus to come and rescue you. You must be your own Orpheus. You must rescue yourself, one step at a time.

With every step I took today, I imagined myself climbing up and into my new life, into the life that, at one time, I had no hope could even exist. I look in the mirror now and there are eyelashes that weren’t there two months ago, a body that, thanks to Lou Kristopher’s Boot Camp, is stronger and healthier than it’s ever been. For the first time in months, I can’t just see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m there, standing on the threshold.

All I have to do, it seems, is keep moving forward, to the life that is waiting for me on the other side.

Wows and Woo-Woos

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I look in the mirror these days, and while I sometimes still don’t recognize the person staring back, I know I am in there somewhere. I think about this journey I am beginning, of survivorship, and all kinds of metaphors come to mind.

A woman in my support group here asked me, while we were at our second radiotherapy appointment together, “Do you know what it means when the machine is clicking? Are those the radiowaves shooting out, or is it scanning us?” She was a sweet and somewhat nervous woman, young like me, and had been struggling with a stressful work environment where she felt manipulated and under-appreciated.

We had talked before about her job and how hard it was, but also about how good the money was, and I had asked her, “I’ve read about women with cancer saying, ‘I will make this work if it kills me,’ when it comes to difficulties at their jobs. But what if it does? What if it kills you?” She replied, “I know, I know, but I can’t afford to quit right now.” I know. I know. I thought, at the time, yes, I knew once too. Yet here I am. Stage IIIA: just shy of metastatic breast cancer.

Some people who fight cancer take comfort in knowledge. White blood cell counts. Survival odds, based on statistics, culled from years of Big Pharma data. You can find these statistics online at various websites devoted to the numbers of cancer. If you have x number of treatments of y drug at z intervals over a months, then you have a b percent chance of being alive after c years. Numbers comfort many people, because it gives them something to hold onto that has been verified by the very industry that is treating (and, they hope, curing) their dis-ease. In a land of uncertainty, numbers comfort us.

The thing is, if you ask any scientist what a fact is, they will have to agree that a fact is simply an opinion that most people agree on. At one time, remember, it was a fact that the earth was flat. All science can really tell us is that x number of people have tried y, and it worked for z of them. Drugs work for some people, and don’t work for others. Why they work is just an assumption, based on other assumptions. It’s also important to remember that why they don’t work is an assumption too. For all we know, listening to Van Halen’s  “Dance the Night Away” cures cancer, but because someone isn’t asking people in chemotherapy if they’ve heard it during the course of their treatment, we don’t really know, do we? My friend Greg ignored all his doctor’s advice when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 20 years old. He drank Natty Light nearly every weekend with his fraternity brothers, believing he was going to go out of this life with a bang. Six weeks later, his tumor had shrunk. Six months later, he was in remission. Does Natural Light beer cure cancer? We don’t know. We don’t know.

The truth is, I have never put *that* much faith in facts or numbers. My opinion is, my body will either heal itself or it won’t. I will either live or die, and only a certain amount of my life is really under my control anyway. What fighting cancer has taught me is that wrapping myself up in judgment over whether my numbers are “good” or “bad” this week or this month can only serve to increase my anxiety, and ultimately, make my life less enjoyable. What keeps me going, instead, is to spend what time I have left on this earth – be it 5 months or 50 years – taking comfort in what makes me feel good, strong, and proud, and not wasting time or energy worrying about being weak, unhappy, or guilty. There will be times in the years ahead (I hope, many years ahead) when I feel weak, unhappy, and even guilty, but they will pass. They will pass! As the Good Book says, this too shall pass.

I have been very careful, in my cancer fight, about surrounding myself with people who have positive, constructive energy. I realized very quickly that people with negative, destructive energy – even when it is unintentional – bring me to a place that drains me of my strength and positivity. I can almost feel my immune system weakening in the face of negative energy. Of course, I knew that, if I was going to be in a giant, clicking, radioactive machine every day for six weeks, I would have lots of time to think about the tumors that had grown in my breast, the likelihood of them growing back, and my long-term odds of surviving breast cancer. I knew that I would need to use the time constructively, not destructively, to help me heal (because ultimately, it is not doctors who heal us, but our bodies that heal themselves). Sitting in the waiting room, next to this woman that I realized I would see every morning for the next month and a half, listening to her worry about her job, about the machine’s effectiveness, I struggled with how I could possibly be supportive and encouraging, and still protect myself from her clearly unintentional drain on my energy.

“I guess I’m just wondering how it works,” she asked, almost to herself, as we sat waiting for the nurses to come get us. I visualized the scene I had been picturing the first couple of days of radiotherapy, that had been carrying me through my own worry, and debated on sharing it with her. “Well….” I said, “You know that part in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is weak from being stabbed by the Nazgul, and Arwen has him on her horse, and they’re running from the Black Riders?” She nodded, presumably wondering where I was going with this, and if “chemo brain” was a legitimate phenomenon. Suddenly, I found myself tearing up. “Well, when I am in that machine, and I hear it clicking, I imagine that there is this part of me, that is weak like Frodo, from being wounded, and that the things that wounded me – my cancer cells – are chasing me, but that there is this also this stronger part of me, that is like Arwen, and she is carrying me away from them. That she is riding for her life and mine, with all the strength that she has. And when I hear the clicking of the tomography machine, I imagine that it is the sound of her horse, galloping with all the strength that it has, to carry us both away to a safe place. And when the clicking stops, I visualize Arwen calling the river to come and drown the Nazgul, and the radiation washing over me like the river, melting my tumor like they’re it’s the Wicked Witch of the West. So when I open my eyes, I’m like Frodo, opening his eyes after being healed.” I collect myself, wiping my eyes. “I’m not sure what’s really going on when they put us in that machine,” I tell her, “but that is what I think of when I hear the clicking.”

She looked at me, a little bewildered, almost as if she had not really been listening, but before she could say anything, the nurse came in and called her to come down the hall. I sat there after she’d gone, wondering if she pitied me, a woman who invested in daydreams rather than science, and if I had helped her at all by sharing my story.

There are some people, I guess, who just don’t find comfort in what they cannot touch or measure. I am thankful, though, that I am not one of them.

Taking My Hat Off

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The truth is, I baby-stepped into it.

First, my sis and I went to see the latest Harry Potter installment in the theater, then we met friends at Sweet Tomatoes (aka Souplantation) for an early dinner. Next, it was running errands and hanging out at my favorite coffee shop, Pacific Bay, and finally, work on Sunday (forgive me, Lord).

By yesterday afternoon, though, after six months of covering my head, I was finally comfortable without a hat, scarf of wig.

The thing they don’t tell you about chemo is that not all of your hair falls out. You kind of look like a nuclear fallout victim, because hair grows in cycles, and it falls out in cycles. You end up with like, two hundred or so sad little hairs poking out of your scalp, six or seven sad little eyelashes hanging onto your lids for dear life, three or four eyebrow hairs askew above them. I think women going through chemo shave their heads for the same reason men shave theirs – because it just looks better without any hair at all.

It was hard watching it grow back in, but not as hard as watching it all fall out. When I lost my hair, the first week of 2009, it was heartbreaking. I mean, I had like, Julia Roberts hair – long, brown, thick, gorgeous. I could wear it curly or straight, and even though I had cut it in anticipation of it falling out, when it finally did, I was horrified. I cried every time I took a shower, every time I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t even hold it together during my last haircut, and made the hairdresser cry (albeit, notintentionally).

It’s not like it all falls out at once, either. It’s more like, when you brush a dog or a cat, and tons of hair comes off in the brush, only, you can see where it’s come off your head, and it just gets thinner and thinner every day. Every time you take a shower and run your hands through your hair, there’s a toupee-sized clump in the drain. Every time you wake up, there’s hair all over your pillow and shirt. You scratch your head under your hat, and there’s hair on your hand when you pull it away, or a clump sitting on your shoulder that you don’t even know about. I lost most of it in a week, and still went through a whole lint roller in just under a month. I tried to reassure myself that it was just temporary, but somehow losing my hair made cancer real, even more real than surgery or chemo. Suddenly, I really did look like a cancer patient.

I kept my eyelashes and eyebrows through most of Taxol, and only lost them halfway through – about two months before chemo was over. Now I really looked freaky. I felt like one of those vampire extras from I Am Legend – dark bags under my eyes, patchy hair, no facial hair. I never wanted to go outside, because even when I felt good, I looked sick. Even my goddaughter stared at me strangely – this sweet child I had known and loved for 6 years, admitted, “It’s kind of weird,” when I asked her what she thought of my “new look.” I started spending more and more time holing up at home, in my pajamas, in front of my computer. Outfits had to be coordinated with baseball caps (I hardly ever wore my wigs because I was afraid they would fall off, or they would make my head sweat as summer kicked in). It was just easier to never go outside. I was becoming a victim of my own reluctance to share my illness with the world.

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. My sister dragged me to a seminar in Las Vegas to see “The World’s Greatest Hypnotist” who was now a motivational speaker with an MLM pitch. It was only two days, but, as always, clothes had to carefully be coordinated to go with hats, makeup had to be applied to warm up my chemo pallor and nearly invisible eyes. It was the first time in months I had been with a group of strangers who didn’t know my story, and I felt like Dolly Parton, having to put on her face to greet the public.

I asked the speaker, in the Q&A, “How can I forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made?” and he responded with encouragement and awareness, making me see how I was punishing myself for, essentially, not being psychic. Hindsight is always 20/20, yet we blame ourselves all the time for not being able to prevent disaster. I realized the silliness and futility of wanting my situation to be different, and the necessity of me moving forward in it as positively as I could, with what I had. I couldn’t change that I had cancer, or lost my hair, or all the dreams I had for the future. What I could do, though, was dream a new dream, that started where I was already, and do it without beating myself up anymore.

I took a good, long, forgiving look in the mirror, and realized that there must be other women out there, feeling self-conscious about their appearance, wanting to hole up until it was “all over,” and, as the speaker suggested, thought of how I could help them in their struggles. I saw the danger in my own reclusiveness – by separating myself from society, I was fighting alone. I remembered Rowena’s telling me to “call in the troops,” to fight my cancer, and knew that I was doing exactly the opposite – instead of calling in for reinforcements, I was in denial about the seriousness of the battle I was facing. It was time I reached out.

The YouTube videos started, initially, as an idea I had to be more comfortable with the way I looked. I was so, SO scared, during my cancer fight, to let other people see me weak, ugly, unsure of myself, or incompetent. I was always the rock and the resident genius. It was enourmously challenging to admit I was struggling. History teaches that you must confront your fears, or they will always hold you back from greatness. I thought, “if I can let the people who love me see me vulnerable, perhaps I will finally be okay with it, and will not spend the rest of the time I’ve got left on this earth in fear of people thinking I can’t handle a challenge.” Many of my friends admitted later that they wondered how I was holding up, and feared I was putting on a brave face (as I always did), while being in denial. I told myself, “Okay, I’ll record a little makeup tutorial for women in chemo, and I’ll just let everyone see what I look like under all that makeup, and they’ll see it’s still me, and the friends who are freaked out will fall away, and the friends who still love me will stay, and that will be that.” In the process, hopefully I would inspire a few cancer-driven agoraphobes to put on some mascara and rejoin the world.

The beauty was, no one fell away. All my friends voiced their encouragement, support, and sometimes amazement, over my videos, and I felt so blessed to have a veritable army of supporters around me, urging me on.

I made video after video, and got a real job. I chose a sales position in a healthy, fitness-focused environment, where I would interact with strangers every day, helping them get fit, or equip themselves for athletic journeys. It allowed me to draw on my history and experiences, and gave me something to do to feel useful every day, instead of feeling like a hopeless cancer mercy case, sitting at home waiting for somone to e-mail her with something to pay the rent. The money was waaay less than I was used to, but the environment more than made up for it. I kept uploading videos and people kept watching them, commenting and sending me encouragement. Every time I felt down or depressed, inevitably someone would post a response to one of my tutorials encouraging me to keep up the fight, and thanking me for my inspirational messages.

Finally, my eyelashes started growing back! It started as one dark little stubbie a week after chemo (my sister blames the Xango she made me drink when it ended; I say my body was just reeeeaaally glad to be drug-free again). Then there was another stubbie, and pretty soon, I didn’t have to wear eyeliner every day anymore. My hair was growing in too, and even though it bore a curious resemblence to Willian Shatner’s, I celebrated every new little strand that came in. I joined an awesome boot camp early in the mornings, and saw my running times improve. I told myself everything was coming back; everything was getting better. With each new gain in health, I celebrated, reminding myself I was coming back.

And so it was that I went to my second or third day of radiotherapy and sat next to Susan, a woman in my CA support group, who was totally bald – hatless and scarfless, going about her business. I looked at her and thought, “Why am I so self-conscious about my head when here she is, walking around bald without thinking twice?” I realized I was being ridiculous, and decided right then to spend the weekend easing myself into a hat-free life.

Sure, when we went to Sweet Tomatoes, a lot of little kids gawked. My friend’s daughter, Molly, more than made up for it. When they came in, she ran up to me, surprised and smiling, and shouted, “April!!” wrapping me in the best kid’s hug ever. It was like I was finally letting her see me, without the hat, without the eyeliner, and she was happy as only a four year-old can be. I said, “Do you like my hair?” and she nodded, smiling shyly. Two days later, I was at work, equally shy and still nervous about my monk-like hairdo, discussing my comfort level with a hatless existence, when my supervisor (who rides for Team In Training) said, “You look adorable. It’s a celebration of life!”

A celebration of life. Indeed. :)

My 40-By-40 List

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cancer, like any threat to one’s survival, can really mind-screw you. When you’re diagnosed, you might find yourself thinking that life after treatment will never be as sweet as it could be, or that there will be things in your life that are suddenly unreachable or unimaginable, just because you’ve had cancer.

I’m here to tell you, that is simply not true.

When I was 27 years old, I did my first triathlon and first marathon in the same year. All my friends were turning 30, bemoaning the end of their 20s, and, what they thought, were the “best years” of their lives. Looking ahead to my own 30th birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to hit 30 like that. I decided to do 28 more athletic events over the next two years, committing to “30-by-30”. I finished 7 triathlons, 3 bike rides, numerous 5Ks and 10Ks, and 3 Providian Relays. My 30th birthday ROCKED, because I was celebrating life every minute up to it!

One of the the lowest points in my battle with cancer was when I Googled “5-year Survival Rates for Stage 3 Breast Cancer.” The number came back: 67%. I have a 67% chance of being alive by my 40th birthday, I thought to myself.

With one number, cancer tried to take my hope for the future away. With another, I’m trying to take it back. That number? 40. How many women do you know who are looking forward to their 40th birthday? Count me among them.

For most breast cancer survivors, if you can make it to the 5-year survival mark, your long-term survival odds increase significantly. So I’m going to make these next 5 years count with another goal: 40-by-40. Part “bucket list,” part personal challenge (and, part Fear Factor), my 40-by-40 is a celebration of who I am, what drives me, and what I have to live for.

I’m not going to let cancer take away my hope for the future.

Are you with me?

Here’s the list:

1. Do a Susan G. Komen Walk
2. Do an Avon Walk
3. Do the Mt. Tam Peak Hike
4. Run the NYC Marathon
5. Do the Napa Tri with Kristy Seltzer
6. Do an Olympic triathlon with Misha McPherson
7. Run the Disney Princess Half Marathon at WDW
8. Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro
9. Innertube the Russian River
10. Take a Road Trip across the USA
11. Go Skydiving with Ian Fuller
12. See an Oprah show with Loren Madden
13. Go on a Chocolate Tour of Paris with Anne Barrow
14. Go to Graceland on my birthday (I have Elvis’ birthday)
15. Swim with my friend Ian’s dolphins (he is a dolphin trainer)
16. Go to an Oktoberfest Celebration
17. Bring my goddaughter out to where I live for a visit
18. Learn how to figure skate
19. Kayak a river with First Descents
20. Go to a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater
21. Build a Rube Goldberg machine
22. Rock-climb in Moab, Utah
23. Visit 20 breweries in Colorado
24. Ski in Vail with my sister
25. Live in Boulder, Colorado
26. Have a job where I can ride my bike to work
27. Have my own place again
28. Go all out for Halloween
29. Sell my house in Kaua’i
30. Go back to Kaua’i to empty out my storage unit
31. Perfect my chocolate chip cookie recipe
32. Reconnect with Katie Birkholz
33. Play on a community sports team
34. Host a monthly movie night with a theme
35. Have an amazing 40th birthday party
36. Make it to 5 years cancer-free
37. Go to Tamika Felder’s wedding
38. Speak at a survivor conference
39. Get a great job with awesome benefits
40. Write & publish a book

 

The Happiness Lock

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So, my hair is growing in. Actually, it’s *been* growing in. I’m still not comfortable walking around without a hat (and yet, I put videos on YouTube of me without one, interesting….). Still, it reminds me that my body is recovering.

My body is recovering. How powerful a statement is that? Lately, I have gotten in the habit of wording things in the present tense. Not “My body will get better” or “I am going to heal,” but “My body IS recovering.” Right now, right this very second – with every hair cell that pushes its way out of my scalp! For all his talk about ditching minimum-wage activities and hundred-thousand dollar watches, I think what all these MLM seminar leaders are really teaching, beneath the how-to-be-a-millionaire smoke and mirrors, is that the language you use, the words you speak, are of critical importance to your success in any endeavor. Are you someone who says, “As soon as I ____, things will be better…”? What statements like this do is put your brain in a permanent state of anticipation, not a permanenet state of action. You are contstantly anticipating the day when things in your life will get better, but they never get better, because you are never taking action!

Have you ever heard the expression that in our dreams, we are the writers, directors, and actors? I have a better metaphor – our lives are courtrooms, and we are the defendant, the plaintiff, the judge, jury, and attorneys. Every moment of our lives, we are making the case for beliefs that we uphold. We look for evidence, and deem it relevant or irrelevant depending on those beliefs. Do you think marriage is an outdated, sexist institution? Then you will seek out evidence of it and IGNORE evidence to the contrary, just to uphold your belief. Even when the knife has fingerprints from the defendant and the victim’s blood all over it, you will say, “Illegal Search! This Evidence Is Inadmissible!” You will look at someone in a happy, giving, joyful marriage, and say that they are an exception, a fluke, or a lie, just to maintain your belief.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Reality is created by Validation.” We make choices every day about where that validation comes from, and we accept or reject the validation based on our evaluation of the evidence presented (which is, of course, accepted or rejected based on our beliefs). If we believe we are bad people (based on what we deem “credible” evidence, like, say, an abusive spouse’s opinion), we might also then believe that God gave us cancer to punish us. A sane person would tell us, “That’s ridiculous!” If we believed we deserved it, though, and believed it with enough fervor, we would dismiss our well-meaning friend’s opinion as uninformed. “You just don’t know how bad I am,” we would say to ourselves. “I do deserve this, and that’s why I have it.”

When bad things happen to good people, it’s easy to blame God, but it’s even easier to blame ourselves. Why? Because it gives us the illusion of control. If you got this because you’re bad, then you can get rid of it by being good. Right? So, basically, you think you can manipulate God’s will by changing your behavior? That’s kind of arrogant, isn’t it? Or is it ignorant? Maybe, shit just happens. Every day. And there’s nothing you can do but roll with the punches. That’s scary, though. It’s much more comforting to imagine we can control God by living a certain way, like happiness is some kind of combination lock we can figure out, isn’t it? That’s not the way it works, though. The sooner we accept that, the easier it gets to swerve when life throws you a curve.

Some of you might disagree, so here’s the evidence, and it’s undisputable: bad things happen to good people. All the time. You can be living a right and good and honest life and still get sick with a disease you don’t deserve. So what? How are you going to respond? Are you going to fight it? Are you going to yell at God? Get angry? Sit around and have a pity party? Good luck. I can’t think of an example where any of that’s actually worked for anyone or made their life happier.

The only thing that works is this: get busy living your life. Stop crying and feeling sorry for yourself – that’s just selfishness and it does no one any good, especially you. Believe with all your heart that you deserve all the happiness and goodness and abundance in the universe, and get out of that darkness so you can get busy living the life you DO deserve (and who says that you can’t be fighting cancer AND be happy?!) Then, look back and create a road map of your journey, so you can help others find their way out. There are a millions ways to get to a happy life. Find yours, then share it.

How to Get Through Chemo

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I was going to title this post, “How to Beat Cancer,” but, I think that’s premature, considering I’m not 5 years out yet. Still, time will tell if the same strategy applies. What I know now is How to Get Through Chemo.

Chemotherapy is no picnic. It’s hard enough, as a woman, to lose your breasts, and if chemo takes your hair, your eyebrows, and eyelashes, it’s even harder. When you look in the mirror, you don’t even recognize yourself – on a good day, you’re an extra from I Am Legend. On a bad day, you’re Uncle Fester. Or maybe it’s vice-versa. Either way, you feel like a freakshow, and all you want to do is stay home and curl into a fetal position.

There is another factor, of course. Many women facing breast cancer are (like me) real “Type-As.” We are the driven, strong ones everyone else relies on, and the worst part of getting sick is entertaining the idea that we might (gasp!) be mortal. It’s hard enough facing the fact ourselves, but letting our friends in on the secret?! Or worse, our family?! Unthinkable!!

The worst thing you can do after a breast cancer diagnosis is hole up. I mean it: YOU MUST NOT RETREAT. It’s so so SO tempting to batten down the hatches and hide away until your hair grows back, to turn down requests to accompany you to chemo because you don’t want people to see you vulnerable. It’s the WORST thing you can do and you will have a terribly hard time Getting Through Chemo alone.

I’ve been where you are. I’ve made it through the deaths of two parents and four grandparents, two financial crises, seven triathlons, three careers, two marathons, a graduate degree and nursing my only sibling through a horrible divorce ALONE. I have carried burden after burden all by myself; I pride myself on being able to pull my own weight in any situation and when I was diagnosed with Stage IIIA Triple Negative Breast Cancer 3500 miles away from all my family and most of my friends, I told myself, “I can get through ANYTHING all by myself, and cancer is no different.”

I’m here to tell you: I was WRONG, and I am incredibly lucky I wasn’t dead wrong.

Cancer is NOT the time to bravely soldier on alone. Three days after my second Taxol treatment, after four very tough cycles of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, I was hit with the worst depression I’ve ever experienced in my life. I found myself crying hysterically at the foot of my bed, wanting to wash the last of the Vicodin from my lumpectomy surgery with the last of the tequila in my freezer. I felt so helpless and hopeless, I wanted to walk into the woods behind my house, curl up into a ball, and never wake up.

I credit three people with saving my life that weekend: my roommate, a fellow survivor, and one of my chemo nurses. My roommate sensed something was wrong when I woke up the next morning, and asked me to stop by her office before my chemo appointment that afternoon. When I got there, she introduced me to her coworker, who was a ten-year survivor of Stage IV breast cancer. I burst into tears when I met her, and told her I was terrified of the thoughts I had been having. She told me that she’d battled with depression during her chemo also, then looked me straight in the eye and said, dead serious, “You have to call in the troops.” I went to chemo and, instead of putting a brave face on for my nurses, I let myself cry in front of them, and confessed I wasn’t having a good day. For someone like me, who was always cracking jokes and making people laugh in Infusion Services, it was a huge admission. Chemo nurses, of course, are a special breed, and one of my nurses offered to do a healing touch therapy on me while I was receiving my meds (something they probably don’t teach at medical assistant schools). I took her up on it and when I woke up after treatment, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I’ll never know if it was my roommate reaching out to me, her coworker giving me permission to ask for help, or my reaching out to my chemo nurses that lightened the load I was carrying. What I do know is this: when you feel like “turtling”; when you want to hide from your friends and family, rather than face them in a weakened, vulnerable state, you must do the OPPOSITE: you must REACH OUT. Let them be the source of strength they want to be for you!

In my moments of darkness, I asked the same question Jesus asked on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I felt so alone, so far away from what was supposed to be the Source of my strength at my lowest point. What I didn’t know was that He had surrounded me with angels to be there for me in His place. God loves us through other people. We just have to be open and receptive of that love. All around me were people waiting for the opportunity to be my rocks of Gibraltar, and if I had kept on insisting I didn’t need anyone’s help, I might have thrown myself into that pit of despair, for fear of appearing weak! Don’t do it. Don’t worry so much about appearing strong that you break from the pressure. People all around you love you no matter what, and are waiting to be there for you, if you let them. Call in the troops. You won’t win the battle without them.

This is How You Get Through Chemo: by Opening Up, not Holing Up.

 

If you doubt the power of strength, power, and beauty in numbers, check out this video: Playing For Change.

The Case For White-Knuckling It

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I realized today that sometimes, you just have to white-knuckle it.

I have a few interns graduating from high school in Richmond, CA. If you’re not familiar with Richmond, it’s a very tough place to grow up. Seated right next to Chevron’s biggest petroleum refinery west of the Mississippi, it’s full of toxic chemicals. The parks are run down and while there is change coming to the City, it wasn’t changing much when many of my students were growing up. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle they’ve made it this far in one piece, with their sanity intact.

I went down to a local JC today to sort out a clerical error for one of my kids – someone used his ID number to register, then drop out of a class. They say he owes them $21 for a on-unit course, and he can’t register for classes at a sister JC closer to home until it’s paid. I mean, this kid doesn’t have $8 for the BART to come out here to fix it, let alone $21 to pay it. He’s saving every dime so he can get his first apartment, and being a young African-American man from Richmond, even one with a great resume, he’s having trouble finding a job in this economy. He asked me, frustrated beyond belief, why everything has to be so hard. Ah, kid, I wanted to say, I am so not the one to ask right now.

The reason is this: I’d just realized I had done the math wrong this month, and I have three chemo sessions left, not two. Then, my doctor told me that the thing on my tailbone I thought was a staph infection from my gym’s nasty locker room was actually shingles. Which is also why the headaches I’ve been getting are not going away no matter how much water I drink. The best part is, I can’t take anything but over-the-counter pain medication, because I have to drive myself to the doctor four times a week for shots, bloodwork, and chemo.

If you’ve ever put pressure on a shingles-inflamed nerve, it’s not pleasant. Not at all. Which is why I am wincing when Marlon asks me why everything has to be so hard, I know how he feels. I know the feeling that it’s just not going to get any easier anytime soon. In those times, I now realize, you just have to white-knuckle It. You just have to get through it, because no amount of vision-boarding or Madonna-album-listening, or positive-affirmation-ing is going to make the pain and frustration go away.

The worst pain I’ve ever been in was the week I had my gallbladder taken out. I didn’t even have a gallstone; I had like “gall-sludge” – a slimy, grainy-textured, tar-sand-like substance clogging my bile duct. The pain was excruciating; I was out of my mind from the second I walked into the hospital to the moment the morphine took effect. It felt like an alien made of boulders was trying to claw its way out of my chest and I was literally watching the second hand on the clock, thinking two more minutes and the nurse will be here, thirty more seconds and she’ll find a vein, five more seconds and it will be in my bloodstream, knowing that as soon as my body metabolized it, the pain would abate.

Knowing there will be an end to pain makes it so much easier to get through, of course. It’s thinking that life is going to be hard forever that makes you want it over. In the Book of Job, the Devil says to God, “You know, even your best followers only follow you because their lives are blessed. If you took away everything they had, they wouldn’t be so penitent.” So God says, “Okay, fine – there’s Job – go to town. Take away anything you want from him.” And Job loses everything – his kids, his business, his house, all of it. Still, Job believes in God and doesn’t question Him. Finally, Job’s friends are like, “Dude, you are not perfect, but still, how can you deserve this? You need to take it up with God, you need to ask Him what you’ve done to be so punished.” God, hearing Job’s friends question His judgement, interrupts them and says, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (which would be Hebrew for “Who are YOU to question ME?”)

Theologians typically suggest that the central question of the book of Job is, “Is misfortune always divine punishment?” and in my opinion, the Book of Job says no. We’re not at the mercy of a capricious God, and we’re not always bearing the burden of His wrath. In times of misfortune, I take comfort in the Book of Jeremiah, where God says He has a plan for me. I may not know what it is; it may be confusing sometimes. I may feel like the Karate-fucking-Kid, waxing on and waxing off and painting houses all day while He’s out fishing! But I have to trust that it’s all part of His plan, and that, like Job, faith and trust are rewarded. Even if you want to get all existential and say the only reward for faith in a Higher Power is feeling like misery isn’t pointless…. sometimes, that can be enough to make you want to go on living.

So many times in my life, I have been able to use past disasters to put things in perspective, either for myself or for others. Time and again, I have made it through hard times to enjoy an abundant and happy life. We never know what God has planned for us; we can only take comfort in what is, and pray for strength, patience, and understanding if it isn’t what we want. I told Marlon, when he asked me why life has to be so hard, that sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s easy, and the only thing we can control is our reaction to it. When you don’t think you have the strength to bear a burden, and none of your positive thinking is helping, the answer is to hold on, let the tears fall, and white-knuckle it ’till it’s over.