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Lost in a Forest

I think I have used every possible metaphor to describe cancer. I tend to speak in analogies which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on my audience. But it is incredibly difficult to describe what life with this disease is like; certainly, I had no idea until fate placed me on this path.

As with so many life-altering situations, having cancer is comparable to being lost in a forest. In the beginning. it is unfamiliar and scary as the dark canopy of trees feels hostile and threatening. First, you are attacked by gnats and mosquitoes. It is uncomfortable as you swat away at the nuisances, but you are focused on finding your way out, so you view it as a slight inconvenience. But then, you clumsily kick over a hornet’s nest. In spite of how fast you run, you get stung, and within minutes, it starts to hurt like the dickens. Nevertheless, you hobble down the uncertain trail because you have no choice. Soon, you encounter a fierce lion, looking at you like you are about to become a tasty snack. You remember that to escape from a lion, you must face it squarely, while retreating slowly, never turning your back on it. You fight back the best way you know how, throwing rocks and sticks at it until it retreats, and you feel safe again.

Breathing a sigh of relief, you brace yourself for whatever new peril awaits you, all the while calculating the best way to save yourself. But somehow, in your attempts to survive the inhospitable environment, you lose your way and find that somehow, through some twist of fate, you are right back where you began. You hold back the tears as you realize that all that you have endured has still not delivered you from the dangers and fears of being utterly lost. And so you struggle, digging deep for the resolve to try yet again, hoping that an alternate route will hold the key to being free once more.

Yeah, having cancer is a lot like that.

It’s 4 A.M. I have many sleepless nights when such random thoughts run through my mind, so here I sit at the kitchen table typing in the dark because I want to remember this example. It seems good enough to share.

I keep notebooks of various writing prompts, scribbled snippets of ideas that may or may not become the basis for something larger. I stumbled across an earlier one a few days ago, and sat for an hour reading bits and pieces of my silly reflections. My life was simple then. Five years ago, I was thinking about travel and organizing my closets. Now, I am focused on survival.

The results of the PET scan came quickly, thanks to a kind nurse practitioner, who took pity on me when I described the agony of the wait to her. In spite of my cautious optimism, I didn’t expect that I would be pronounced cured, free from further treatment. I have only heard those magical letters NED (no evidence of disease) pronounced twice in the past 4 years. And so, I rarely allow myself to think of such possibilities since it feels like a set up for disappointment. Once there is a recurrence, you are considered to be chronic, which by definition means long lasting and difficult to eradicate. It has become my least favorite word in the English language.

The specifics of my report aren’t important, but the general picture is less than ideal. Thankfully, I had a partial response to chemo in some areas, which is a reason to celebrate, but there is also new growth, places where the cancer has planted itself as it begins to destroy a previously healthy area. I am experiencing a bit of discomfort in that generalized region, a constant reminder of the new alien who has taken up residence in my body. I try to focus on the victory, but like that lion, the threat is ever-present. I remind myself that I must stare it straight in the eye and not show fear.

My case will be presented once again to the tumor board. I figure that these folks must feel like they know me by now, my name appearing on their agenda over-and-over again. I wonder if I should give my oncologist a photo to attach to my folder so that they can assign a face to my medical record number. Maybe I should send them a fruit basket to enjoy while they deliberate.

And so I wait, my fate being determined by these doctors who have a wealth of experience in my kind of cancer. I was warned that more chemo was a real possibility. There is one PARP inhibitor, an obscenely expensive pill, that I have yet to try. But in my experience, that has been as physically challenging as traditional treatment.

Regardless, I am not out of the woods yet. (Pun intended)

People use words like “brave” and “strong” and “inspiring” to describe a person who is fighting this awful disease, but most of us are none of those things. Certainly, that is true for me. Like most animals who feel threatened, I am in survival mode. The difference is thanks to the advanced human brain, I can think, reason, all the while imagining dozens of scenarios of what the next chapter of my story might be. Acceptance is an ongoing task, but faith guides me. I am fully aware that in spite of it all, I am living a miracle. And every once in a while, I think about travel and organizing my closets. I remind myself that a lofty goal is often balanced by a simple one. And I’ve got a lot of living left to do.


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