Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One year later

An hour ago I was thinking about how my 'cancerversary' is coming up - the anniversary of the moment when I found out I had thyroid cancer. I was trying to figure out how many days away it was, so that I could think about whether I wanted to mark the day in some way, to sort of assess my feelings.

I realized with a start that it's tomorrow.

Ever since a year ago, I do this. I know some emotional date is coming and in my head, it is far away. When I think about it, starting to wrap my mind around it, I realize that it's tomorrow and I feel terribly cheated in my chance to prepare, wrap my mind around it, think about what it all means. I'm an analyzer, it's what I do.

So one year ago today, I was hovering between the worlds of biopsy and results, knowing I wouldn't have them until tomorrow, a quiet unknowing in my heart. Looking back does not feel like a wistful celebration, it feels dense and bitter in many ways.

"Ever since you've had cancer, you've changed. You're more harsh than you used to be, there's an edge to you now." A friend said this to me not long after my surgery, and it has proven increasingly true over the last year. I was really angry when she said it, I can't say I'm not still angry sometimes, but mostly because it's true. Also, because life changes us, and not always in ways we like. I am harsher, and I spend a lot less time now crafting what I hope are the perfectly tended words to get my points across. I'm not as delicate in my language, I don't tiptoe gently behind someone's defenses to be heard.

Conversely, I have a whole new vocabulary for what it means to go through, survive, and be reborn by a trauma. This is not a bad or sad thing- life is full of traumas and we discover who we are, who we are capable of becoming, in the face of them. We are swept off our feet by the flash floods of life and must find new ground, testing for stability, trusting our hand holds. It's hard work, and it requires us to stay in the moment in order to survive.

I found out that I was capable of facing down cancer but not in a fight, but in a dance. I never would have imagined it until I was in the moment! All my pre-cancer life, I imagined that cancer was a fight, a battle, a war - you win, you lose, you conquer or surrender. I discovered that cancer could be a gift, a great expansion of ones-self.  I found a great, deep intimacy with a friend who also had cancer- something that people who haven't had a serious illness can ever truly understand, because their bodies were not assaulted by the word Cancer, and by cancer treatment, and by the emotional battery of it all. It is a private, exquisite experience that defies words, and it broke open my ability to feel compassion greatly.

I've learned that it feels really weird, almost selfish and embarrassing, to announce that you have cancer on Facebook, even after all those important calls are made. I learned there's no easy way to tell people who love you that you have cancer, and that I still couldn't help but be the 'strong' one in that moment. I laughed, I joked, I tried to put people at ease, and days later I lost my shit driving down the highway and almost drove myself to the crazy hospital because I thought I was going insane. It passed. I was going insane, but not the quick kind of crazy people want to give you meds for- the slow kind that everyone else is suffering, too.

I learned that a lot more can forge a marriage together than fights that are behind you, adventures you've had together, parenting children into hopefully healthy adulthoods- and that not all of the crises of cancer needed discussion. Sometimes I just needed to look at his face and know that absolutely no matter what, he was there for me, that he would witness and hold, and encourage and be the space where I could fall apart, and never ask a single thing for himself, even when I begged for him to. I saw a strength in my husband I had seen glimpses of over our 20+ year friendship, but this took us to a place of revelation I don't know that much else could have accomplished. He is truly the best man I have ever known, in ways that words can never capture. I limit him when I try.

I learned that I can love myself a lot, and still not like parts of myself that grow like weeds in the garden I thought I'd so carefully cultivated. Tenacious things, I pull at these parts of myself and they come back thicker and deeper until I relent, and make room for them. It's a hard lesson, to accept things about yourself that are not who you knew yourself to be.  "I see that you love yourself, but that you don't like parts of yourself. I see that." Another friend reflected to me recently after I raged about my new impatience with things, my intolerance for 'bullshit'. I don't want to accomodate little things anymore, I don't want to do the dances I once was so fluent in. I don't want to baby a situation. I make harsh faces now, where I used to be softer. I don't want to be touched like I once did. I feel more masculine in many ways.
Decline of Empathy to Appease Serenity,
by Nigel Sade

I was at ComiCon this year and met this amazing artist. Looking through his work I felt things, and I came across this one. I don't love this painting, it doesn't necessarily appeal to my eye. However, if my heart was cut out and flayed open, this is what it would look like. The person is flipping off the butterflies, the empathy - for the sake of peace, the shadow ahead saying, "FUCK YOU". I get it. I truly get it.  I bought it and it sits right in front of me now, where I can look at it often and ask myself, "Am I still there?" Yes, I am. I don't have time for empathy anymore, I need serenity, I can't take care of you, because I have to take care of me. I have to let go, I'll be there when you fall but I won't be your cushion anymore.

It's a weird, strange, powerful, dark, masculine, wonderful, liberating place to be.

"What does the anniversary mean to you? Why do you mark it?" I really had to think about it when my friend asked me this recently, when I told her that May 23rd was coming, and that I was feeling tender and easily bruised. She was curious, not judging, and I had no answer.

I realized today as I made my bed and tried not to cry that the anniversary marks that I have lived for 365 days past an event. I grew up thinking I wouldn't grow up- I have had an entire adulthood never imagining growing old, anticipating that I would die at any moment, rather than that I would live a long time. I still don't think forward from now. Rather, I take a curiosity stance- I wonder if I'll see that baby born? I wonder if I'll actually get into midwifery school? I wonder if I'll actually see the ribbon cutting of this business I'm in? I wonder if I'll see my oldest graduate, or my youngest get married? I don't know. I don't assume so. I just hope for it, and wait to see what happens in between.

How does any one event change you? It's impossible to know, because it happens immediately AND over time- it touches every event in your life directly following it, and those change you too, so you can't possibly tease out what one thing caused, versus another. I try to unravel who I was before I had cancer, before my mother died, and I find myself shocked that as I think about facing tomorrow, I am wishing my mother was alive so that we could talk about it. I have not felt that since her death. I don't want her to be alive, but I wish that of all people, I could visit this milestone in my life with the woman who brought me forth - learn how it touched her, too.

The last thing I'll say is that my cancer gave me the gift of anger. I used to say that if I ever let myself feel the full spectrum of anger that I had tidied into little boxes in my self-awareness-defense-mechanism, that someone would literally extinguish from the earth. I'm pretty sure that on the other side of cancer, I began to feel the anger- not that I had cancer, but just at the helplessness, at the painful experiences, at the fear in the eyes of people I loved, at the minimization of my experience as 'just' thyroid cancer, at the desire to make it bigger than it really was because it felt enormous to me, even if the world said it was small. Small cracks began to appear and vents formed- I started speaking honestly about feeling angry and stopped feeling that I needed to apologize for it. Rather, I just stopped giving a flying fuck what anyone thought about my feelings because damnit, they were mine, and i had a right to them, and I earned them, and therefore protected and defended them. I don't have to explain to anyone what cancer meant to me, I don't have to dial it back or feel less intensely because it made other people uncomfortable. That was an incredibly powerful discovery - that I can feel the full range of emotions, stretch into the full skin of who I am, and that no one would leave me, no one would cease to exist in the way I had always thought.

In some ways I am still in between the worlds, still grieving the loss and death of who I was Before Cancer. There are things I know now that cost me, but many things I've learned that I waited a life time to know. You can't have one without the other, and that's one of the more profound lessons, I think.


  1. This is more beautiful and more powerful than I have words to say. You are rich - in your courage, in your perception, in your anger, in your willingness to name and embrace so much of who you are and who you are becoming.

  2. This is Alison Slow Loris, btw - I'm not getting the mechanism of signing in :-)