Monday, April 1, 2013

All right, then. Moving On.

I had my final radiation treatment last Tuesday and left with a celebratory pink carnation and the well-wishes of the extraordinarily nice radiation technicians I’d gotten to know over the course of my month of daily visits.

“Congratulations!” they said.

Which seemed odd to me, since congratulations generally have to do with having accomplished something—and all I’d done was go where I was supposed to go and let nurses and technicians do what doctors had decided should be done to make me better.

And, honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. I don’t think having cancer will turn out to have been one of those before/after events for me. It didn’t feel like a challenge met, it didn’t change me or make me want to change my life in any way, it didn’t show me anything about myself that I didn’t already know. It was interesting, in an unpleasant way. It certainly made me think--which, in my view, is always a good thing.

For example, I used to think attitude made a huge difference. Now I think now it may make a difference: the chemistry of the body is changed by stress and fear and maybe it makes the body’s task easier if you don’t feel that.

But how you feel is how you feel.

You can defy feelings by acting against them. Or decide to act exactly how you feel. But either way, it's deciding how you're going to act despite or because of how you feel. Maybe negative feelings can shift in the process of acting against them, maybe not. If you're cheerful and optimistic by nature, lucky you. If not, you shouldn't be blamed for what you can't change. Being of the latter disposition, I've found that cultivating a matter-of-fact, Just Do It, attitude works best for just about everything that comes my way.

In any case, I feel like my body was the one challenged by this experience—and met the challenge very nicely. My body is what fought a battle and survived. Not me. If there is a story to tell about surviving, it’s my body’s story, not mine. My story is about hanging in there while it did its work. Giving up any idea that I could control what was happening to my body and how my body was responding to it. Being curious. Trying to learn what I could about the strange world of illness along the way.

I didn’t become one with my body, didn’t even have a moment of intuition of what that would be like. It’s still it and I’m still me. I feel grateful to my body for saving my self. This is probably a very weird way to be thinking about the experience.

But it explains why the language surrounding cancer just doesn’t work for me. Fighting and winning the battle against cancer. Cancer survivor. My body did that. It survived. Not me.
Not to mention the fact that a whole lot of people have it way, way worse than I did. I’m embarrassed when people use those terms talking about what I’ve gone through.

Plus, like faith, dealing with breast cancer feels private to me. Not that I’m unwilling to talk about it. (Anyone who knows me knows that, for better or worse, I’ll talk about anything.) Just that the experience itself belongs to me, alone. Only I can come close to understanding it. I don’t need or want a “church” of survivors to give it meaning. I don’t need or want “Pink.” (Though I very much respect those who gain strength from that community.)

Of course, you can’t have cancer without wondering if/when it will come back. And then what? But I’m trying not to go there.

Instead, I’m celebrating the fact that, at least for now, it’s over.

And working 24/7 on growing some hair.


Kathy H-C said...

This is important for people to remember: Each of experiences an event in our own way from our own perspective. Your blog should help us realize that there is not a one-size-fits-all reaction to having cancer. Thinking there is gives US comfort because we think we know how our friend is feeling, what they are going through. It relieves us of the obligation to ask, "How are you, really?" And to listen.

This is true of any pain, whether it is the result of an illness, a loss, or an accident. The truest gift can be friendship.

Barbara Shoup said...

Yes. And I am so rich in friendship, including yours.