The Lessons Learned
It has been a week of doctor appointments for me as both my medical and gynecological oncologists have reviewed my scan results, performed a physical exam, and ordered some additional blood work. They are thrilled with my outcome, of course, offering congratulations and hugs. I wonder how often they get to celebrate with a patient since theirs can be a challenging, sometimes hopeless field. I am happy to be a reminder that what they do is powerful and important. We discuss future monitoring and the removal of my port. I am gently told that while there is no cure for me, in all probability, there will be periods of good health when this disease is not present. Ideally, that could stretch into years. Statistically, I am a quarter of a way there to beating the odds: I am ever so optimistic.
I know the staff by name, having spent so much time with them over the past fifteen months. I make jokes in the lab as much for me as for them. It is a distraction. Even after so many visits, the needles give me pause. I don’t think you ever get used to the warning of a “big stick.” Today, one of the nurses told me about her own cancer journey as she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my arm. I had no idea. We locked eyes in a moment of quiet agreement, and I recognize the profound beauty in the way that feeling understands feeling. Those who have lived and survived remember the depth of the experience. And because they have shared the journey from darkness into light, there is a kinship.
Regardless of how it presents itself, chronic illness is life-changing. Much of what existed before the disease came to live in a body is lost, gone forever. And there is period of mourning that comes along with that. It is as though before you can rise above the trauma, to begin living a redefined life, there must be a descent into the abyss where broken dreams have gone to die. It is here that you must examine who you are and what you truly believe. In the dark night, when the soul is challenged to grow stronger in order to survive, faith illuminates the path, lighting the way to healing. But that lesson, once learned, means you never view yourself or the world in the same way. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Perhaps it is by mere association, but those who have stood watch, been there through the journey also find themselves altered in ways both big and small. My medical oncologist, the chemo doc, is a compassionate and gentle soul with a heart big enough to accommodate a huge patient load that consists of some mighty sick people. She recently related a story that has stayed with me. A colleague of hers lost a three year battle with brain cancer. Because of their long friendship, she went to visit his wife a few months after his death. After a bit of small talk, the woman confided. “I am a better person now. It is as though my husband generously and graciously took all of my bad habits, all of my resentments, bitterness and weaknesses with him. I have been transformed.” Amazing, courageous, and inspiring, right? All I can hope is that cancer has taken most of mine as well, that I am able to set my course on being a better version of myself, a more kind and loving human being. I hope to bring honor to the rest of the life I have been given to live, and make God smile once in a while.
At some time or another, all of us have been wounded by the circumstances of life. It simply is a truth of human existence. We are surprised when the difficult times appear, having taken the good ones for granted. But once you can remove the emotion from the equation, avoiding the self-pity, you are able to look at things a little more objectively. A situation is simply a set of events that occur. It is our reaction to it, what we think of it, how we process it, that gives it meaning. When we are locked in the pain and confusion of turmoil, it is hard to realize that always, we get to choose how we respond. And that is the key to being strong.
If you can go through life with an open mind and an open heart, you will have moments of triumph in spite of the challenges. And after the storm, you will struggle for the proper way to explain the experience. Ultimately, words fall short because they are inadequate. And so, I am reminded of the universal language, emotion, since we all understand what it means to feel pain and sorrow as well as gratitude and joy. Today, my heart is full as I cast my eyes to the sky. For indeed, it is there that I see the rainbow.