There are two kinds of people researching their illnesses: those who cannot get enough information and those not wanting to know anything. I cannot decide which group has a better experience. On the one hand, I am curious and have adequate research skills for learning about my cancer. On the other hand, nothing I have learned is very good.
I learned from Dr. D that my cancer was not aggressive, but I was at stage three in its development. I discovered that people at that stage have a 45% chance of being alive in five years. On the night before my follow-up visit at the county hospital I was reading website after website in an effort to prepare myself for my appointment. I was thinking that if I faced my worst fears I would determine that I could handle that scenario. Then I would know that I could manage this challenge. The method has worked for me before.
I have never had to do it with respect to my health until 2011. Now it was my second round of battle with my fears. I understood that this would not be my last night of anxiety. There were too many worst case scenarios with which to grapple. My mind worked to absorb the possibilities like the computer in the movie War Games. There was the possibility that my cancer had spread to my bladder, my bowel, my blood, my brain, my bones–talk about swallowing a B Complex tablet. All of these possibilities scared me. I rubbed my eyes and wondered how many times you could be lucky before you were just due for bad news.
It was not simply the prospect of a recurrence of cancer that occupied me. It was the treatment that made me nervous. I made a list of chemotherapy drugs used to treat endometrial cancer. I began reading their side-effects. It became clear to me that these drugs were designed to scorch the earth and leave it a barren wasteland that would sustain neither cancer nor life. I switched to reading articles about radiation and realized that this was a trip to Chernobyl without the need for a passport.
I stretched out on the couch and drew my favorite quilt over me. I closed my eyes and tried to think positively. I worked on a helpful hypothesis that began with the fact that I was going to face the next stage of recovery with renewed strength and energy. In the days following my surgery I was immeasurably stronger than I had been for some time. I had been walking longer distances. I had not taken even one nap. I felt better. I had lost some weight. I was feeling that I could handle the coming challenges.
Barb called. She wanted to know how I was doing. I admitted that I was afraid and told her about the 45% survivor rate. We were both quiet for a moment.
I felt tears well up in my eyes. It was one thing to die during surgery and another to die of a terrible wasting disease. I have a cousin who fought cancer for eleven years before he succumbed to treatment. It was only a couple of years ago that my naturopath, Kevin, died of cancer. He fought his colon cancer naturally and unsuccessfully. Many of his initial tumors shrank, but he could not recover from the effects of his treatment, which depended in large part on inducing high grade fevers several times a week, coffee enemas, and then juicing to build up his immune system. My friend Roberta lost a sister to an unusual form of cancer. Roberta’s sister Laurie had very little time from diagnosis until death. My Aunt Arlene has been fighting an unusual type of breast cancer for many years. It has spread. Peter S from A&P had colon cancer. He has been gone for some time. My friend Paul recently lost his friend Karen to breast cancer. Not long ago I read that a former colleague from A&P, Susan L died of cancer. I know of people who have not yet succumbed, but the word “yet” lingers in their stories.
Death is a fate that none of us can escape. I remembered my former A&P colleague Tony Friedrich. He survived an airplane crash outside of Madrid in 1984. Then he died in a plane crash in 1989 in Honduras after monitoring elections in Nicaragua. At the time of his death I was deeply troubled by the thought that you could experience two plane crashes in one young life. That night I contemplated a future in which I, too, might have to face the same horrific fate repeatedly. The worst case scenario approach to handling my fears had become untenable.
Barb suggested that I go to sleep. We would face my fate one day at a time.
I wanted to do this, but it was several more hours before I slept. The truth is that it takes courage to face death once. It takes something I do not yet have words for to face death again and again. You have to ask yourself how anyone who has been to war can send soldiers back to the front time and time again. The plight of these soldiers made me realize that everyone encounters death repeatedly during life. Most of us do not recognize it. We sail through a red light or right a car that has begun to skid on wet or icy pavement. We encounter a sick person and are exposed to a deadly illness. We consume a food that contains nearly enough toxins to cause an illness. We sleep in a bed within feet of a deadly spider. We fly during bad weather. Somewhere in our bodies a cell divides and becomes a cancer cell.
The thing that makes the soldier noble is that he or she faces death for others. The rest of us are just humans. We face our worst fears because our eyes open to recognize the danger. We have no choice except to try to deal with what we see. It is possible that our battles will become noble. But we are not necessarily ennobled by facing fears.
I pulled my quilt up around my ears and wondered how I would be feeling if I had not gone searching for answers to my questions on the Internet. Would I be sleeping soundly? Was ignorance bliss? Already it was too late to say for sure.
What I know about myself is that when I read a book I read it one page at a time. I have rarely skipped ahead to the ending. So I will likely be one of those people who cannot get enough information, but I will stop imagining the worst case scenario because, while I may have to handle it, I am not certain how to handle it. I will take this one day at a time. I will endure what I cannot handle. I will suffer what I cannot endure. I cannot escape the fact that I am going to succumb to something sometime. I am only human. Because I am human I will also have hope to sustain me. I will remain positive. That way, no matter how the story of my life ends I can make it a drama with comedic overtones instead of a tragedy. I like the sound of that.