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My Brave Face

Some days I feel like a donkey in the Kentucky Derby. Wish I could take credit for that catchy little slogan, but I can’t. I stole it from a coffee mug in one of those cute, overpriced gift shops. But regardless of the source, it’s true for most of us. We all have our bad days. And sometimes, those days can seem never-ending.

On my recent trip to the infusion center for post-chemo blood work, I had a new nurse. I immediately liked her. She seemed genuinely happy to meet me and even though our entire encounter would only span a half hour period, it was nice. She made funny comments and asked questions in addition to the obligatory heath-related ones. It is always interesting to show up after someone has looked at my medical chart for the first time. They seem surprised to meet me, especially on one of my good days. On paper, I look like I have one foot in this life and one foot in the next. Thank goodness, I appear to be much less fragile in person.

So as I sat and waited on the results, she gave me the annual hospital emotional health survey to complete. This will be my fourth one, so I know the drill by now, and of course, I am always aware of the possibility that admitting how I really feel sometimes might trigger the crisis intervention folks to sweep in, Valium and a straightjacket in tow. I have heard about the funny farm; I proceed with caution.

You see, most cancer survivors don’t talk about the emotional impact of the disease. They are scared to acknowledge that they are often depressed or sad or frustrated or impatient or lonely. Unfortunately, mental health challenges still carry a stigma. In a society which openly discusses most formerly taboo topics, depression is the dirty little secret that no one wants to mention in polite conversation, and so, we don our brave faces, play the inspirational role, while we smile and make jokes. It’s a coping mechanism, one designed to make everyone else feel better so that they won’t run in the opposite direction when they see us coming.

I tread softly with this new nurse. “It always feels like a loaded question when I am asked if I am down in the dumps,” I say, “ I am never quite sure how to answer. But how could I not be after being sent on an extended trip to Cancerland? This is no beach vacation. And it’s kind of difficult to rank my emotional experience on a numerical scale like you do pain. Obviously, some days are better than others.”

She stopped entering the data into my chart and turned to me. “You know, most people are not asked to face their own mortality in such a blatant way,” she said. “Fighting this disease is hard: I see it every day. That would test anybody’s emotional stability. You have to be kind to yourself.”

Ding! Ding! Ding! This nurse understood. People with advanced cancer are asked to stare into the cold, steely eyes of the death dragon, envision a life that will be forever altered and accept that you cannot be the person you once were. Some things that you lose will never be recoverable; moments lost can never be remade. And it is hard not to compare yourself to others, who seem to be living the high life, one you will never have. While you feel ashamed at the envy, you can’t avoid it. And sometimes, that can make you feel like you are drowning. To be scared, sick, exhausted, anxious, weepy, confused, nauseated, abandoned, and bloated, well, that tends to alter your outlook on life. So does the uncertainty.

And most of us don’t do well with uncertainty. We want to know why something happens, how something works. We want to carefully plan our tomorrows. But the world isn’t always black and white: there is a lot of grey in there. And some of us, through circumstances beyond our control, live here in this space between simple and hard, trying desperately to build a house on unstable ground.

My oncologist recently confirmed that every genetic test run to determine the origin of this cancer in me has come back negative. There is absolutely no reason why I got so sick except perhaps for the intangibles like stress and environment, something called spontaneous illness. And so, I am learning to feel my way around in the dark, in this place where there are no definitive answers. It has taken me a while, but I also ask why less often. That’s progress.

When the universe gives us something that we can’t change, it requires acceptance. And that’s not just true in regards to illness. Advanced age, altered circumstances, emotional loss, complicated relationships, financial burdens, career shifts, family dynamics require us to rethink our tomorrows. We all arrive at this place in our lifetime, and like it or not, we must learn to adapt.

This much I know are sure: great pain and great hope are the polar opposites of existence. And none of us are immune from experiencing those extremes. Yet we live in a world that was redeemed many centuries ago, one which sadly still struggles to accept and embrace that certainty. Thank goodness, I understand that. Faith has been my lifeline.

And yes, the sadness monster, continues to chase me from time to time, although I have learned how to fight it. I try not to concentrate on the disappointments, whether from people or circumstance, for those are sure to come. Gratitude helps. Focusing on the good things, the small pleasures, the bountiful blessings can break the curse of sorrow. But that’s an acquired skill, one I have not yet mastered.

I have also learned to accept my occasional dependence on others, to realize that I sometimes need to be cheered up (and on), to share a laugh over a bottle of wine. And that reminds me of another donkey reference. The gang in the Hundred Acre Woods made sure that Eeyore was always in tow, even on his gloomiest days. You can count on Winnie the Pooh, to enlighten us all with life lessons and bits of wisdom about how we should treat each other. The people in your life, those willing to stay the course, even when it gets hard and ugly, keep you from being being left behind, from losing your way. (And your mind.) Most definitely, they are at the top of that thankful list. The very top

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