You Can’t Get There From Here
Many years ago I drove a van to a college debate tournament in my capacity as assistant debate coach. We were lost and stopped for directions. The local passerby, when asked for directions to the highway, answered, “You can’t get there from here.” At the time, I was charmed by the notion that you could not reach a place on a road from a road. Later in life, my mom and I visited a coastal town in Alaska while on a cruise. The town boasted about ten miles of road that connected homes to ten bars and as many churches. When a fellow passenger asked how to drive to another nearby coastal town, the answer was the same. “You can’t get there from here.” One had to take a seaplane or boat to visit the nearest town. Many years later, I met a naturopath and told him that I felt that I had become a dying organism and I wanted to make some changes in my life that would transform me to a living organism with new goals and direction. He gave me the same answer. In his view, life was lived some place along two axes: horizontal life was unfulfilled. Vertical life had momentum and held the promise of new growth. He believed that a life misspent in horizontal endeavor needed to retrace its path to inception before it could pursue upward flight–a cosmic “do over” if you will. Through a series of “corrections” administered in his office, he did set me on a course to new growth. Now I find myself about to finish cancer treatment, and I wonder if, once again, it will seem all but impossible to move from where I am.
My doctor says that I will need to undergo tests every three months for many years. The doctors will look for cancer markers in my blood. They will perform scans of my body to search for masses. I will be examined for a recurrence of cancer in some new organ (as the cancer that was found in me has already been removed as part of my hysterectomy).
How can you ever put this disease behind you when, in as little as three months, it might recur? My cancer buddy Wanda was operated on in April and found to have a new mass in October. I have never lived in a state of fear before. I cannot imagine that this experience will be taken in stride. Whenever in life I have faced something awful, I have first asked myself what is the worst case scenario? If I can imagine myself handling it, then I have been reassured that I can handle it.
The idea of a recurrence shakes my self-confidence because I began my current odyssey with some sense of my own limitless potential for recovery. Now I come close to finishing a course of treatment that has taught me that I am not as strong as I thought. I began treatment feeling very well. I will complete it with a new humility. In five weeks, my treatment has broken down many of my body’s systems. I bleed from my nose, bladder, rectum, and skin every day. I experience pain during daily body functions that is so severe that I cry out in terror and pain many times a day. I have felt my intestinal tract throb with pain and, in doing so, cause so much more pain that I feared I might pass out. When I urinate I gnash my teeth and wail. It has been all but impossible to sit, to stand, and to lie down. I have never slept much, but lately I sleep two or fewer hours in some days. I have lost more than forty pounds and forced myself to eat and drink. I have showered once a week instead of every day because my skin flinches under this watery assault.
Life has become a condition I must encounter through a vast membrane of painful nerve endings. I no longer am secure that I can handle the worst case scenario. If this is what it is like to treat cancer, then how I can face cancer again?
There are things I can do. I can change my diet and eat what is described in literature as an alkaline diet. The literature says that cancer cannot thrive in an alkaline environment. I can oxygenate my blood by eating raw foods. Some say cancer thrives in an environment of cooked meals. Even as I say this I wince. A new discipline to run my life–not my definition of moving forward.
I can return to working out. I have a pulley system of weights that I can use as soon as I feel a little better. I don’t mind doing this. But I have never been the sort of person who feels the endorphins. Where is the joy in a life of cautious measurement of risk?
I think the best way to get where I want to go might be to pursue a path that focuses instead on the following:
1. I need to connect with others through faith, family, and frienship. There is no question but that these have gotten me this far. I have a life filled with people I love who love me. My bonds with them are deeper still after they have helped me through this trial. I need to honor these connections and keep them strong.
2. I need a pet. There are studies that a pet can extend life. I want to share my daily life with a creature that I love and who loves me. I want to be reminded every day that life is a series of interconnections that give life texture and meaning.
3. I need to laugh every day. An antidote to fear is humor. I intend to find something to laugh about, especially me. Cheryl has become so serious that she needs laughter to give her life a less grave tone.
4. I need to volunteer. I do not simply mean to contribute my time to a cause, but to stand up and be counted upon to speak out when something is wrong. If I am a bystander, then I am not engaged. I want to be fully engaged in my own life.
5. I need to pursue my passions. I have not undergone this hell to do things that do not matter to me. Whatever I do I must do it with my heart.
6. I need to be grateful. Many people have saved my life. I have counted my blessings and they are numerous. I will not forget that at my darkest hour there were people who filled that darkness with light.
I am sure that I will add to this list as I undertake recovery. But I believe it is possible to get there from here. I am counting on it.