Adversity is not at the top of my list of things for which I am grateful. Nevertheless, it imbues every moment of grateful reflection this Thanksgiving. I cannot forget that last year at this time I was recovering from a hysterectomy and about half of the way through chemotherapy and radiation treatment for uterine cancer. I recall feeling pretty good last Thanksgiving. My surgery went well. I was out of the hospital within days. My incision healed quickly. The staples started coming out by themselves before the week was out and were removed after less than five days. I learned that my cancer might have been stage three, but a month later I met with Dr. H and her team for the first time. She evaluated the same pathology reports and categorized me as a stage one with complications. That improved my life expectancy. I went from having a 45%-ish chance of being alive in five years to better than twice that chance of survival.
The interesting thing about this kind of math is that it instantly made my whole outlook so much better. I recall the moment the doctor said it. I looked at Barb and my eyes were filled with tears that I didn’t shed when I was hemorrhaging during the first week of October, lying on an examining table while Dr. S took a biopsy of my cancer like he was slicing a scallion, tethered to IV and blood bags while he broke the news that it was cancer, or shuffling down the hall alongside a nurse after surgery. Math has seldom made me so happy or grateful, even though the numbers have often been kind.
Despite the good news, I still had to go through treatment. I spent Christmas last year in a world of pain and suffering that I thought could kill me. I lost weight, hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, energy, strength, even a little hope. But I survived it, which means it was not all that bad. The damage done to my bladder means that I am in pain every day. Earlier this week it was so sharp that I crawled into my bed, pulled up a quilt and tried hard to remember the last time I felt really good. I knew it happened, but could not remember that last good time. Pain and fear were much more memorable. Moreover, I still have no way of knowing whether my treatments will prevent the spread of uterine cancer but cause a second cancer. Numbers, even really good ones, are not promises.
My numbers are just a probability–not a guarantee. I can appreciate the difference. But they have made me conscious of the incredible gift that optimism is. Back in November of 2011, when the doctor reclassified my cancer stage, everything felt better even though nothing had changed. I was the same woman. I still could not know whether my cancer had been fully removed. I did not know how treatment would affect me. However, a better set of odds made me think I could beat this cancer. Everyone does not get to hear such good numbers.
I have met many people this year who have heard worse numbers. My seventy-three-year-old Aunt Arlene called last week. She has been fighting metastic breast cancer for more than a decade even though most people in her condition lived only two or three years with her type of cancer when she was first diagnosed. The numbers are not going well for her. The experimental drug that kept her going so long is no longer available to her. She is on a new drug. When she goes in for infusion she feels excruciating pain in every bone in her body. She can feel the pain in the last bone in her little finger distinct from the equally keen pain in the next. Her doctor said, “You’ve been fighting a long time.” He paused for a long time before he said, “If we were to stop now, you might have a year.”
My aunt and her husband want to fight. And so, despite terrible pain and poor odds, she is about to take another infusion of the drug that makes living so very painful. Life is worth it for her. Numbers do not have to be expiration dates.
One of the things I learned this past year was that the toughest thing about cancer is not facing death. It is about facing life. No matter what the numbers say, life is filled with adversity. Sometimes we let that adversity hold us down. Sometimes we see it as a challenge to overcome.
I spoke with Joyce on Tuesday night. She is nearly done with chemotherapy and now faces surgery and radiation. She is doing well. Today she will cook for her family–all their favorite foods. But she passed out in the doctor’s office during her last appointment when he insisted that she needed surgery. She keeps hoping that good numbers will exceed and vanquish bad ones. It’s not the numbers that decide who wins and who loses. It is much more complicated than running equations. The numbers do not always add up.
The unknowns in life outnumber the known factors. Most of the numbers in life are variable. The reasons why I am thankful this year are that I have faced adversity and gotten a little past it. I am still here. I have reasons to believe I am cancer free. I am surrounded by people who love and supported me. They give me many reasons to keep going. I am grateful because the time that lies ahead of me now–no matter how long it proves to be–is being savored in new ways.
In a couple of hours I will sit down to dinner with my mom, brother, sister-in-law, aunt, and four cousins. I will have a plate of turkey with a heaping serving of gratitude for how things have turned out this year. I may have to wash it down with another scoop of adversity, but that’s the thing about playing with the numbers. You have to hope the numbers will balance favorably if you have a little more time to work with them.
I am thinking today that Joyce is 100% cancer free, has normal lymph nodes and no more lymphedema. Peggy has no expiration date. Arlene will live a long life. My family and friends are my “secret” power. Prayer is the best medicine. Cheryl is winning her war against cancer. All of us find strength in knowledge and faith. All of you will hear good news about a loved one soon.