According to The Facebook, four of my friends have recently toured Italy, another France, still another Ireland, and one is currently posting from the Scottish Isles. At least three more just returned from or remain at the beach, and others have sojourned recently to Chicago, New Orleans, and New York. I’m loving the opportunity to travel vicariously to such beautiful and varied places, and I’m thrilled for the joy evident in their journeys.
I am equally thrilled to be cleaning out my closet.
I’m not being sarcastic. Okay, maybe just the tiniest, tiniest bit sarcastic.
But not very.
Back in 2015, hubby Steve and I moved into a new house, combined our two households into one, got married, and started a new school year—all within two months. I was one week into the 2016 summer break, Steve one week into a new job, when I was diagnosed with cancer. The Summer of Settling In we’d planned was replaced by two Summers of Treatment and Recovery. We still have unpacked cardboard boxes in more rooms of our house than not.
Having the energy to get back to tackling those boxes and cleaning the house is a profound comfort and surprising thrill. Before this past year, I’d never thought it would feel like such a massive accomplishment to be able to scrub my bathtub. Before this past year, I’d never thought about how much physical effort actually goes into scrubbing a bathtub: getting down to and up from the floor, kneeling for an extended period, bending and reaching and applying pressure. You don’t realize how many ways you use your pec muscles in everyday living until they’ve been scraped and radiated and permanently stretched over silicone implants. While I would much rather breathe in the aromas of fresh French pastries or a salty sea-breeze than Mrs. Meyer’s Lavender Counter Spray, I now understand just what a gift it is to have sufficient strength and mobility to wield a scrub-brush and push a mop.
And home projects—actual projects! the same ones I’ve been staring at for months, the ones I occasionally managed to purchase supplies for before my energy petered out somewhere in the aisles of Lowe’s—they are a source of deep satisfaction. Months ago I picked up a few cans of spray paint to refresh a couple of plant stands and a rocking chair. It felt great to finally haul (with Steve’s help) the items out into the yard a week or so ago and give them a few coats.
Chair in progree
On the porch
While I worked on the porch furniture, Steve took the design for some shelf bases he’d drawn back in the spring and put his carpentry skills to work. We still have to get at some more of those unpacked boxes to fill the shelves, but just having them in position on their handsome living room bases is a beautiful thing.
Painting the bases
We lived in survival mode for so long, the patient and the caregiver, it’s exhilarating to return to being partners in the care and crafting of our abode. Someday in the not too distant future, I hope, we’ll travel abroad and taste fresh pasta in Italy, or sip a glass of single malt after a trek across the Scottish moors. For now, it feels pretty darn good to chop tomatoes together for a pot of chili in our kitchen, bumping elbows as we rinse the dishes, smiling at these, the simple joys of health and home.
This is the first of a series of short posts I’m calling “Survivor Snapshots.” Since going back to work, it’s been tough to find the energy to write on a regular basis, though there is much to write about. I hope to share a few more snapshots soon. Thank you, as always, for reading!
I had big plans for the blog these past few weeks: a post about anniversaries and milestones, a post about a coming name change, another capturing the weird world of living with tissue expanders (among other things, I now have a superpower: my boobs can predict weather changes). But then I got walloped with the respiratory virus/sinus infection/germfest from hell, and instead of writing prolifically, road-tripping to a concert, and enjoying daily walks on the local greenway, I’ve spent the week in a state of anxious exhaustion, worried about how long I’ll be sick, and angry that all my plans have been derailed by unexpected illness.
It’s a strange throwback to this time last summer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about markers and milestones lately. I attended my twenty-fifth college reunion back in April, and at our class meeting on Saturday morning, we went around the room and heard an update on everyone’s lives. As I thought about what to say, I realized just how eventful—and if you’ll pardon the cliché—what a crazy roller coaster ride the last five years had been. In the time between my 20th and 25th college reunions
I walked away from an on-again, off-again relationship that wasn’t working;
Met, fell in love, planned a wedding with, and married my now-husband Steve;
Created and wrote a regular blog about being a forty-something first-time bride;
Bought a new house with my new husband and moved for the first time in ten years;
Lost two beloved cats;
Acquired two wonderful stepsons (and saw both graduate from college and get settled into their first apartments);
Acquired a dog-by-marriage and a new cat with the new house.
That was between April 2012 and June 2016. From the last year alone, add
Got diagnosed with breast cancer;
Underwent chemo and radiation treatments;
Had a bilateral mastectomy;
Created and wrote a regular blog about having cancer;
Completed treatment and was declared cancer-free.
And that’s just the short list.
It’s been, shall we say, a lot to absorb.
What’s in a name?
So, as my final major reconstructive surgery approaches (nine days and counting), I’ve been thinking about how to recognize the shift—the end of a year of illness and treatment, the beginning of healing and long-term recovery—here on the blog. Language is powerful, and “Still Life, With Cancer” no longer accurately reflects the state of my body, and I think it’s important to reinforce my cancer-free status in my mind.
I’ve been considering several different alternatives. My first thought was “Adventures in Cancerland,” fitting for several reasons. It makes a nice literary allusion to an alternate world full of surprises and absurdities, and I suspect most of us who’ve come to inhabit Cancerland would agree that a diagnosis feels very much like diving down the proverbial rabbit hole. And while I no longer have cancer, I still feel as if I am in Cancerland, with more surgery ahead, ongoing side effects from treatment, and the fact tripping over my own mortality has changed my experience of the world forever.
Apparently, I’m far from the first to have thought of this comparison, as the title has been used, more than once. I could do a slightly different iteration of it, or add a “my” or a “further,” but that triggers resistance in my gut. I don’t want to “own” Cancerland so fully at this point, and I definitely don’t want any “further” adventures beyond recovering from this one. So I think that one’s out.
I also considered another allusion, “The Cancerland Diaries,” which seems accurate enough, and pays homage to a writer I much admire, David Sedaris, author of The Santaland Diaries. Sedaris is also a chronicler of moments of absurdity and surrealism that are only too real. But I’m not as funny or biting as Sedaris, so the echo may not be entirely apt.
I could keep it simple with “Still Life, After Cancer,” which is clear and accurate, but perhaps belies some of the complexities that remain even after being declared free of the disease. Since I kept coming back to the titles that evoked how surreal the whole year has felt, my inner nerd was compelled to look up the etymology of the prefix “sur.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “sur” derived from the Latin super, the root of the Old French sour or sur, and means “over, above, beyond, in addition.” It also has a nice connection to “survivor.” That led me to consider one more possibility: “Still Life, Beyond Cancer.”
The current URL will still take the reader to my blog, so no one else need remember the new name, unless inspired to do so. But I am curious, dear reader: what do you think? I’d love to have your input, via the poll below.
In the meantime, I’m resting up, taking antibiotics and cough syrup, and repeating to myself—as I have so often this year—“This, too, shall pass.” Here’s to reporting on a happy and healthy five years at my 30th college reunion.
First, of course, was the conclusion of treatment: with my last dose of radiation on March 6th, the treatment portion of this long road is complete. I am cancer-free, and the plan is to stay that way.
Since then, one event after another made it abundantly clear how completely cancer claimed this past year of my life. It began with what I’m calling “the list of the missed.” First, we discovered I’d forgotten to get my car inspected in 2016. I drove minimally after chemo began in July and only began driving regularly again to radiation appointments. I didn’t register the expired sticker until Steve (poor Steve) needed to use my car one day and got pulled over. Shortly thereafter, my gynecologist’s office notified me I’d missed scheduling my annual exam. Then, while traveling in Portland, I asked my niece how long she’d been a blonde. Though she lives far away, I keep up with her via Facebook. Or so I thought. She’d been blonde since last summer, she said.
In quick succession followed the Spring Equinox and the Science Museum of Western Virginia’s annual Butterfly Ball, each an even more profound reminder of how quickly things can change, how consuming treatment was, and how grateful I am to be on the other side.
After my initial diagnosis in early June, I was scheduled for an MRI, after which I was to meet with my oncologic surgeon to find out specifically what kind and stage of breast cancer I had. My appointment with her fell on June 21st, the day after the Summer Solstice.
On the Solstice, ten days after my diagnosis, I prepared and carried out a Solstice ritual. I find value in rituals, especially in times of transition. Based in large part on an article by Monica Carless in Elephant Journal, my ritual was in essence my plea to the universe that the news at the next day’s appointment be good: that the tumor be small, the cancer caught early, the stage 1 or 2. I dressed in white, and we lit a fire in the firepit in the backyard. I lit three candles, one each to represent the past, present, and future. I spoke some text, mostly borrowed from Carless, a portion of which went like this:
“Surrendering under a Full Moon becomes a ritual of letting go and breathing in the fine essence of being taken to unknown place. Although our fear may steer us away from valuable lessons, surrender takes us by the hand and guides us to new strengths…. During this Full Moon we are handed a great opportunity to find balance and open-heartedness, forgiveness and hope. Shall we take it, hands held, eyes to a peaceful future? While we could easily to slip into worry and fear, it’s better to surrender to hope—it is a deliberate choice.
During Summer Solstice we are bathed in light from the sun and the moon. At a time when darkness threatens to overwhelm our hearts, we are gifted with more light than we have experienced in months. Is this a signal to trigger our hope? I welcome this Full Moon and Summer Solstice as a herald of good things to come.”
Steve and I then wrote down fears or thoughts we wanted to release, tossed our papers into the fire, and spoke aloud any wishes we wanted to share. I threw sage in the fire for purifying, and lavender for healing and safe passage. I blew out the candles representing the past and present, leaving the future candle to burn into the night.
Future burns bright
Full Moon on Solstice
The next day the news—while far from the worst it could have been—was much worse than we had hoped. Triple negative cancer. A six centimeter mass, lymph nodes involved, Stage 3. More tests needed to be sure it was not Stage 4. Chemotherapy, bilateral mastectomy and radiation all likely. That appointment and the six days that followed still remain one of most traumatic weeks I’ve ever endured.
The Spring Equinox, March 20th, marked nine months since that summer ceremony of hope, the last evening we were free to imagine a different reality than the one we were presented with the next day. Nine months—a gestation period. It seemed important to mark the Equinox, sometimes called the “day of equilibrium,” with a ceremony as well, as a way of bringing things full circle and signaling my moving forward.
The Spring Equinox celebrates re-birth and renewal. This time I borrowed ritual language from articles on foreverconscious.com, refinery29.com, and whitegoddess.com (sources in links) to create a pastiche script of personal significance that read in part:
I burned the “Bye-Bye Cancer” signs from my last radiation treatment in a brass pot. Then we smudged the house with a sage smudging stick to cleanse it, and lit a new candle from the flame. We wrote healing intentions, which I placed in a cloth bag with rose petals, flowers being symbols of spring and rebirth, and touched a growing green plant. There were a few tears.
It felt good to mark the Equinox with another ritual, this one focused on cleansing, healing, rebirth, and balance—moving forward along the path I’m actually traveling, rather than wishing for a different journey.
Regaining my footing
A few days after the Solstice, I saw an advertisement for the Science Museum’s annual Butterfly Ball. Steve and I have attended every year since it debuted four years ago, including the May 2016 event, which took place almost a month to the day before my diagnosis.
I didn’t know then it would be the last ball I would dance at for nine months.
We attended several dances during treatment, the first a Halloween ball just after chemo finished in October. I got out on the floor for the Cha-Cha Slide and realized I didn’t have enough strength, or balance, to actually hop when I was supposed to. I had to fake-hop, and after one more line dance, I was done for the evening. We went to the President’s Ball on campus in November; another annual event for us, attending felt like a declaration of normalcy.
2016 Butterfly Ball
President’s Ball 2016
Consider: I have danced in the aisles of the Dollar Store, in the parking lot of a beach restaurant, on a deck in the middle of the woods to an iPod. I am always one of the first people on the dance floor, one of the last to leave. This year we spent the President’s Ball sitting down, listening to dueling pianos, watching others take a twirl.
The Butterfly Ball fell early this year, but we got tickets just in time. When we arrived at the Science Museum, a DJ was playing, but by the time we ate, walked through the Butterfly Garden, and visited the on-site science experiments, he’d moved on to karaoke.
We stood with the crowd and listened to the first performer or two. Then someone chose a love song to sing, and I took Steve’s hand. He looked at me skeptically but followed my lead. Who says you can’t dance to karaoke?
Cheek to cheek
Immersed in the music, wrapped in my husband’s arms: it did indeed feel like a rebirth, a new beginning. I can’t yet dance with abandon as I used to; Steve tried to spin me once, and my less-than-flexible upper body reminded me I have more healing to do.
Still, the forgetting, even for a moment, felt good. Almost as good as my feet stepping back out on the floor.
I took a short hiatus to process the conclusion of treatment, but I’ll soon be returning to a regular posting schedule. Thanks, as always, to my readers for their support!
The Twelve Days of Christmas traditionally start on Christmas Day, December 25th, and continue through January 6th. The “twelves” that are on my mind these days are a bit different: having had surgery on December 12th means that today, Christmas Eve, marks my 12th day of recovery. Everyone has told me that the first two weeks are the hardest (and I hope they’re right), so I am glad to have reached this milestone, and look forward to continued healing over the next days and weeks.
I am more aware than ever of the many gifts in my life. Plentiful food; a warm, safe, spacious home. The love and care of so many people: devoted family who share their time and energy generously, decorating the tree, making meals, running errands, offering a voice of experience. Beloved friends who text encouraging messages, share their skills and favorite books, send beautiful holiday cards and bouquets that brighten up the darker days. And an incredible husband who stands by my side, makes me laugh, and doesn’t blink at changing bandages or fetching yet another Coca-Cola Icee (or even question my weird craving for them).
I’m also aware of gifts I’ve received for so many years without any comprehension they were gifts: the mobility to towel myself dry after a shower, mindlessly, unaware of the many twists and turns my body had to make to accomplish this simple task; the steadiness to reach the sugar where it lives on the highest kitchen shelf without having to ask for help; the stamina to sit at my computer and write for hours at a stretch. The gift of the absence of pain or discomfort. The gift of good health. Gifts I hope to receive again, and fully appreciate hereafter.
We won’t receive the full pathology report from the surgery until early January: we are hoping, based on the post-chemo scans, for good news. Until then, we will continue to celebrate the gift–a precious one– of another Christmas together. And I’ll keep you posted as often as I’m able about my ongoing Adventures in Cancerland.