In January of this year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, halfway through treatment, I am having the time of my life. I am not a Pollyanna. I am not a martyr. And I am not a lunatic.
A reasonably successful, independent woman whose first fifty years accommodated about the average number of curves life has a tendency to throw, I was not prepared for the disruption. That’s how I saw it in the beginning. My busy, productive life would be repeatedly disrupted by fatigue, nausea and pain. And I would lose my hair. I didn’t know then how insignificant all those side effects would become. I didn’t know that cancer changes everything.
But first, like other victims of serious illness, I had to travel through the well-known stages of grief. I rushed through incredulity for a week, anger for two more; then I hit the wall with terror. It was a full month before I encountered a sadness so profound, it crowded out the fear. Hovering over every hour of every day, I doubted the cloud would ever lift.
During those early weeks, my behavior bewildered those around me. A generally easy-going person, I flared when anyone mentioned everyday problems. I considered a flat tire, a lost memo, a faltering romance petty compared to having breast cancer. I was angry at my mother for not helping more, my sister-in-law, a professor of nursing, for knowing too much, my friends for telling me I would make it when they couldn’t know that, and the man in my life just for going about his daily business.
The anger was just beginning to run out of fuel when panic gained momentum. I could die. A gambler reading the statistics would call my odds of being alive in five years a very long shot. My doctors, caring and competent, nevertheless did not offer reassurance that I would survive. In the first meeting with my oncologist Dr. Bernstein, I said, “Let’s don’t think of this as terminal, okay? Just a disease that we will cure, okay?” Not replying, he gazed sympathetically, and I tried again. “Okay, but we have a good chance, right?” He barely nodded, and that was the instant fear took over. I woke up to it and went to bed with it. When I tried to describe my fear of death to a friend, I suddenly remembered how I felt as a little girl home in bed with the mumps, listening to my neighborhood friends playing outside my window. I would be left out. Of everything. Forever.
At some point, the fear metamorphosed into a sorrow so overpowering, it permeated my life. The same family and friends who had recoiled at my angry outbursts appeared baffled by this woman they had never before seen cry, break into weeping in the midst of a seemingly harmless conversation. Whether with gigantic hiccoughs, loud wails, shoulder shaking sobs, whimpering or silent tears, I involuntarily expressed my sadness at odd moments, day after day. The relief of those first tears, pouring out during a telephone conversation with a survivor from the American Cancer Society, broke the dam, and I cried until I used up all my tears. I cried when my friend Mary Catherine said she wanted to make arrangements for me to find a good wig. I cried after every call from my grandchildren. I cried at movies. I cried watching commercials on television. I cried when my cat caught a bird. I even cried while writing employee performance evaluations.
With a few last sniffles here and there, the sorrow finally faded, along with the anger and the fear. Those big emotions must still be hiding somewhere, waiting to reappear, but they will have to wait, because in the past few months, something far more profound has taken over my life. Like the song says, “Love is all there is.”
This narrative is not about my romantic love life, although it has been sweet to learn that I am loved for more than being a redhead with two good breasts. This story is about the other kind, the love that sees me through. It was there from the beginning, but I didn’t let it in, not until my dear friend, John, forced the door. John has bone cancer. For four years I had been with him as he consulted with doctors, went through chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, one of which resulted in the removal of his shoulder. I watched John suffer the effects of a devastating chemo dosage which left him with a damaged esophagus, limiting his ability to eat. I watched his hair fall out and grow back. I watched him cry. But I didn’t comprehend the enormity of his experience, not until it was my turn.
John ordered me, point blank, to let him in. To let everyone in. He said the strength I needed would come from others. He told me to welcome with open arms any expression of kindness and to lay aside obligation. He said the greatest thing I could do, not only for myself, but for those who care about me, would be to ask for help. John didn’t get through to me right away; he called or dropped by nearly every day with the same message until, beaten down, I gave it a try.
I started with Mary Catherine. She had been ever persistent with offers of help, and I decided to let her in with a kind of test. Not only could she take time off work for the wig fitting, but she could also sit with me for the first chemotherapy treatment. She didn’t hesitate. So when my son, Mark, announced that he could no longer stay away and was coming for the second chemo, I welcomed the offer and told him I wanted him with me again the week after the mastectomy. He readily agreed. I asked my friend Sue if she could plan to drive me to both surgeries and, when my hair started falling out, to shave my head. She told me it helped her to help me. Then it got easier. Jerra, my childhood friend from Wyoming asked if she could help in any way, and I asked if she could come the second week after surgery. Though startled, she didn’t hesitate, convincing me she wanted to come.
I began to recognize from among all the cards and calls and flowers, those who wanted to do more, and I encouraged them in the help I needed. Linda brought me food, and Beth dropped by often to rub my feet. Carolyn was in touch every single day and drove down from Riverside on a workday to be with me during the third chemo session. My niece Shannon was the first to tell me I looked great bald (of course, Shannon lives in San Francisco), and was there, holding my hand, after the fourth treatment. Sharon made me a candle, painstakingly decorated with scenes from my life. Jane brought me a dress that would be comfortable after surgery. Anne taught me how to disguise my lost eyebrows and eyelashes. My coworkers announced they were collectively “imaging” my hair grown back during the second chemotherapy protocol. Alan fixed me lunch the day before I was to face the mastectomy. My daughter Laura changed my dressings. And so many more. Whenever the bad stuff happened, the people who loved me absorbed the blows.
I was invited, as a nominee, to a black tie book awards banquet scheduled for twelve days after the mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. I was determined to go, even though I had been warned that the recovery period was at least four weeks. With encouragement, that affair became symbolic for my determination to keep going. Andie took immediate action; she found the perfect, loose fitting dress at a consignment store. Susan jumped in by helping me find shoes and thigh high stockings that my body would tolerate. Hardly able to stand up straight and leaning on my tuxedoed escort, I went to that dinner, and didn't even notice the two days of relapse that followed.
Last month my brother Stephen came to be with me for a whole week, something that had never happened before. Amidst all the chores he was determined to undertake, we became reacquainted, reveling in each other’s company.
It works, all that love. Emanating from Mark as the boulder in the center, and surrounded by rocks I lean on everyday, the concentric circles continue to widen, each providing strength and sustenance.
Bill sent me “The Rules for Being Human” from the Seneca Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge, and I kept coming back to one passage from among all that wisdom. “A lesson is repeated until learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can move on to the next lesson.”
The essential lesson I had not learned was presented to me in the form of breast cancer. And I finally learned that lesson. I learned to recognize the love that is everywhere, waiting to be tapped. And the love I have accepted, I have returned. When I remember that I have cancer, I am not angry, or frightened or sad. I see Mark running out in the middle of the night to an all night pharmacy or describing to a saleswoman in Nordstrom the kind of bra his mother needs or lugging two cases of bottled water up the stairs. I see Jerra cooking or cleaning or helping me dress for the banquet. I see Stephen with his tool chest working on my fire alarm or my sliding door or my kitchen lighting. I see everybody doing for me what they want to do.
The love I have found these past months has taken up permanent residency in the deepest part of me, an endless source of strength I can tap whenever I need it. I am having the time of my life. And I am ready for the next lesson.
|Candace's Home||Awards and Background|
|Released 2009||Released May 2010|
|Small Moments in Time: Memories of Lassen County||The biography of a heavyweight boxer,
Off the Ropes: The Ron Lyle Story
|Published Novels||An Award-Winning Poetry Chapbook|
A Mingled Yarn
A Thousand Strands
|Poems to My Mother|
|In the Works||An Award-Winning Essay|
|The Love That Sees Me Through|