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.