March 4, 1996
My treatments are finished. Last week, my husband and I went to see Dr. B. She came in and checked me over and said I looked fine.
What did I want from her? I wanted her to tell me something that was definite and real and magical and true, all at the same time. There was something very important I needed to know, but I didn’t know how to ask for it.
“I feel as if I should ask you how to live,” I said.
What do I do now? I wanted to say. Now that it’s all over, tell me who I am. I’ve forgotten who I am, who I used to be. Remind me. I need you to tell me, because I don’t know.
Dr. B told me I should live “normally.” I should do all the exercise and work and play and travel I feel capable of doing. I’ll be coming in for checkups every three months for the first two years, then less frequently. In the meantime, signs I should watch for include persistent, sharp, “bony” pains – whatever those are – coughs and uterine bleeding.
That’s all she said. She told me all of that and probably more. But she didn’t tell me how to live.
It’s been a tough summer for me. I wanted so much to be completely healthy and vibrant and to understand what had happened to me and how my life had changed. I wanted to be transformed by having cancer. I wanted to be a better, wiser, deeper person. Didn’t I learn something profound that I never wanted to forget? I guess so, but I couldn’t remember what it was.
Sometimes I think I’m the only person on earth who wants to talk about how I had cancer. It’s deeply affected our lives since last year, but my husband and the kids and most of my friends want to ignore it. I’m reading a draft of (Dallas internist and cancer survivor) Wendy Harpham’s latest book, When a Parent Has Cancer, and she talks about the disease as an elephant in the living room and how families will go to terrific lengths to pretend the elephant isn’t there. I’ve always visualized cancer as an elephant in the room, too; I wonder if Republicans use different imagery.
September 8, 1996
Today’s the first anniversary of my diagnosis. I’ve cried four or five times, and I’ve had long talks with my husband about how I need more support from him. I’ve also gotten in a big fight with our daughter, yelled at our son and flung my shoes across our bedroom because I was so upset – which is probably only the second time in my life I’ve done anything that tempestuous. I felt like Maria Callas.
For the past several months, I’ve had an image fixed in my mind of how I should look, act, feel and be as I recover from cancer. It’s the image of a woman who’s striding confidently through life – the same way models do in a tampon commercial. After a few tough days, this woman’s conquered cancer and moved beyond her petty fears. She’s grateful for every new day she’s alive. Her hair is perfect and her hem never droops and, come to think of it, she looks a lot like Martha Stewart. She’s probably making something terribly clever with her old chemo tubes, like a centerpiece for a dinner party – while here I am, lying on the floor howling and generally having one of those long, dark nights of the soul in the middle of the afternoon.
I don’t even like people like this woman. So why do I want to be her?
Because, that’s why. Because I want it to be that simple, that easy.
There’s nothing that’s picturesque or noble about the terror and fears I have, but what I keep trying to do is to look at them differently and understand them. I’m trying to learn to accept the fear instead of fighting it or discounting it or pretending it isn’t there. Fear of cancer, fear of suffering and death and of leaving my family and this life are now a part of me, a part of my body and my mind. This is where I live now. This is who I am.
Last fall, when I was feeling so exhilarated, I used to tell myself how lucky I was. Instead of getting cancer, I could have been hit by a bus – and I would have missed all the colors and vibrancy and emotions in my life. That’s what I went around telling myself.
Months later, I finally figured out that getting cancer really is like getting hit by a bus. It’s just that you don’t notice it at first. You’re still walking around, talking, thinking, breathing, feeling; you’ve survived; you’re strong; you’re going to live. You’re just fine, thank you. You’re doing great. Let’s talk about something else.
Then, out of nowhere, one of those buses slams into you again and again. They leave panic in your eyes and tread marks on your heart. Or maybe they just break your heart again and again, and you try to put it back together before the next bus comes.
A friend has a recurrence.
Your three-month checkup is next week.
You have a pinprick of pain or a funny cough. Or you find a suspicious lump, which is redundant, since all lumps or pimples or mosquito bites are now harbingers of death and you realize cancer has made you into a hypochondriac.
You go to a middle-school graduation ceremony at your child’s school. You wonder if you’re going to be alive when she graduates from high school.
You’re feeling fine. Then you see an article about cancer or an obituary of someone you know, and it feels like you’ve been kicked in the stomach.
This is what my therapist tells me is my new reality. My life isn’t ever going to be the same and eventually, I’ll come to terms, to an easier truce, with an uncertain future.
Last week, I drove our son’s carpool home from middle school. Four boys punched and arm-wrestled and tried to get each other into headlocks. The fifth boy played “Louie, Louie” on his trumpet. It was like Animal House on wheels. Careening along the streets, humming and laughing to myself, I felt exhilarated and full of life and hope.
Even in moments like that, I know I’m not safe, and I know, deep down, that I’ll never be safe again. But that’s where I am in this new year of my life. I’m between buses. And I’m learning there’s life there, playing in heavy traffic, and it’s the only life I’ve got.
I learn this. Then I forget it. Then I learn it all over again.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)