Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Month: November, 2012

Thanksgiving Wishes

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.

A Little Understanding

I am watching the TV to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, as everyone else is. It has been four days. The fatality count in the U.S. alone has climbed to ninety-two. Property damage from this storm is estimated to make it the second most expensive disaster in U.S. People are waiting in long lines for gas, water, and food. Millions of people are without basic services like running water, heat, and electricity. Cities, communities, homes, and businesses have been destroyed. The New York City subway system flooded during the hurricane and has yet to be restored to full service. Sixty million gallons of water need to be pumped from tunnels before the subway trains can run. Yesterday people drove in gridlocked traffic jams to make it to the office. Countless others waited three hours for buses or walked into the city. Others waited all day for gasoline for cars and generators. There is plenty of gas in supply, but you need electricity at depots and stations before the stations can sell gasoline. Power is in the process of being restored, but there are still many areas that need more work before power can be restored.

This morning, amidst the barrage of mean-spirited campaign ads that have overtaken my TV, I heard a report that people were starting to lose their tempers. Angry people yelled, Where is our Red Cross truck? We’re going to die. We’re gonna freeze. We got ninety-year-old people. It’s cold. Our children are homeless. I need gas. All day no gas. What am I gonna do? The Red Cross arrived on Staten Island with dry ice and ready-to-eat meals yesterday. A woman said she thought they’d have had a blanket or something. Her family needs clothes. One man described the experience as “post-apocalyptic.” Another man predicted that looting would increase as people had time to plan their own form of “disaster recovery.”

It is awful to imagine what it was like to spend a night in your home while nature did its best to bring that home down to the ground. I do not know what it is like to have my home flooded by water. However, many years ago my grandfather’s sister was caught in a flood during the middle of the night. She and her husband passed their baby boy to the brother who came to warn them of the approaching flood waters, but they paused to dress before fleeing and were caught by the waters. They climbed onto furniture in their bedroom. The water rose to their necks. The back of their new home broke off from the main structure and washed away. Their farm animals died in the flood. As the long cold night wore on, these dead animals floated in and out of the house. My great aunt Bertha never was the same again. She died shortly after the flood. Her family members said that surviving the flood broke her.

As we listen to the voices of people whose tempers are growing short it is easy to wonder why people think we should be on their blocks with electricity, food, blankets, shelter, and gas within a matter of days. They are homeless, tired, cold, hungry, and afraid. Some of these people are going to vote next week for a candidate who has said that he favors less federal government. He thinks the states should bear more responsibility for handling a crisis of this kind. There are people who want to privatize what now are basic services provided by the government to the public. If an entire state can be struck by a weather emergency and that state must act on its own to respond to the damage, who will answer the call of the people whose lives have been crushed by disaster? When schools are operated by charter, then they may no longer be operated in public buildings that can serve as shelters for the homeless. When there is no federal mandate to provide disaster relief, then any response will require coordination and budgetary authority. A state that helps another will have to justify that expenditure to its constituents. Those constituents may not want to fund relief for others with their tax dollars.

Across America there are people who have been unemployed or underemployed or financially insecure for several years. They wonder why no help has reached them either. They may apply for unemployment compensation that runs out after awhile, stand in line at food pantries, or ask for relief on underwater mortgages in court. There are people who need help to pay for prescriptions or medical care. There are people who do not face looting tonight, but crime in their neighborhoods is rampant. Instead of having their babies crushed by falling trees or pulled from their arms by flood waters, their children are shot while they play in their neighborhoods,  in their yards, on their porches, and in their homes.

As angry voices rise in the wake of disaster it is easy to become angry in response. The anger on both sides is a response to fear. We need to offer others reassurance. We may not be there to help you as soon as you would like or with the things you most want to receive, but we are here and we are coming. It may also be time for us to reflect on whether this is a nation that will heed the calls from other citizens or whether we will follow a course that breaks down the ties that bind us. Even if you believe that the problem with America is that there are too many people who depend on others to bail them out, you should keep in mind that disaster can befall anyone.

The biggest banks in the world have failed. Major corporations have failed. Small businesses have failed. Levees have failed. Disaster plans have failed. Relief organizations have failed. All of us are vulnerable to bad weather and disease. Our obligations to each other are both a burden and a buoy at times. As tempers rise we need to keep reaching out with understanding. All of us need understanding at some point in our lives. It is the one form of aid that we can offer that costs nothing and requires us to cut no red tape. When it feels like others’ suffering has become a threat to your well being keep on offering understanding and support. When your suffering seems more than you can handle, do not break. Talk about it. There are people out here that want to help you.

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