Getting a cancer diagnosis is a disorienting experience. It’s as if you’re sitting curled up on the sofa, reading the newest Jennifer Weiner, empathizing with the protagonist as she navigates the everyday joys and foibles of new love and family life, and you turn the page to find yourself suddenly thrust into the middle of a dystopian sci-fi novel. The characters are mostly the same, outside a few additions wearing white coats or colorful scrubs. But the rest of the world has changed. Surrealistic and strange elements—barium smoothies, giant machines, unpronounceable chemicals—appear frequently. The tone, previously light peppered with poignancy, now shifts between darkly serious and comically absurd, every page weighted with philosophical subtext probing what is the meaning of life?
You want more than anything to flip the pages back, to return to the other story. But you can’t.
The weekend immediately following my Friday biopsy, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. That Tuesday, the day after my diagnosis, a toddler was snatched by an alligator in the shallows of a Disney resort lagoon while his parents stood steps away. As I read accounts from those in the club who’d lost loved ones in the shooting, as I imagined the horror and pain of the parents who lost their son, I wondered: how do people who have experienced such suffering, such sudden and horrifying trauma, stand it? How do they go on?
I am slowly discovering: you just do.
I’m not equating anyone’s tragedy with my breast cancer diagnosis; another lesson I’m quickly learning is how individual the process of navigating any form of grief or loss is. And yet all of us who experience a sudden trauma (and many, if not most, of us will) must face that same question, and need to find an answer.
I go on because there aren’t many alternatives. Some who are ravaged by grief take their own lives, but that’s exactly what I don’t want: I don’t want to die yet. That’s exactly why a cancer diagnosis is scary and soul-shifting: the aura of death that hovers around the word. I don’t want to die yet because there are still so many things I want to do. And that eliminates another alternative: curling up and hiding. It’s tempting, and I did lay low in the early days, when we were waiting on more information before we shared the news. It was easier to avoid people than to lie when they asked “How are you?”
But I’ve since felt spurred to action. To reprioritize. To kiss my husband Steve more often. To work actively on a book project. To tell my friends and family as often as I can how grateful I am for their care. Even when it feels like this giant looming thing has pressed the pause button on my life, I am still a newlywed, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I still have stepsons, a dog, cats I love; trails I want to hike, words I wish to write. Uncertainty will be foregrounded in my life for a while, but it’s better, necessary, to keep moving forward. If I found myself in any other threatening landscape—a snowstorm, a swamp—I wouldn’t stop and stand still; that would be uncomfortable, painful, dangerous. I keep moving because hunkering down and staying put won’t make things easier, only harder. I keep moving because whatever hope there is lies somewhere ahead.
Getting a cancer diagnosis is a disorienting experience. You wake up one morning, head to an appointment for a routine procedure you’ve had done maybe 10 or 15 times—already assured of your good health from a test the week before—and then: an image on a screen, a doctor’s pause, and you know the world you knew is no longer. The story is rewritten in an instant. Perhaps it is a bit like standing on the edge of a peaceful lagoon where an alligator you never imagined could exist appears and snatches away your heart. You wonder: What could I have done differently? Is it my fault? Why me? How can this happen? Yet you know these are pointless questions. The thing has already happened. The world has already changed.
And so you go on. Put one foot in front of the other, and go.