Last night at dinner, 12 hours before I would know that the tumour was cancerous, Kirsten and I toasted to lives dense with meaning and intensity and delight. There is no doubt that has been what my life has looked and felt like. All of you reading this little blog are bright spots in a life that has offered a shocking number of beauties. I live in gratitude for it all, more than a full lifetime’s worth of gifts. And still—greedy me—I want more.
One of the funny things is that a cancer diagnosis seems so grim and unpleasant it makes life sort of miserable (like I seem to have given up eating and I have been crying rather a lot) and at the same time it makes life seem so much more precious. There are lots of paradoxes like that.
I am on a plane home from one of the hardest days I’ve ever had. I knew I was pushing my luck when I took a call from my surgeon less than an hour before teaching 60 people for 7 hours straight, but I really was expecting that he would tell me something that would lighten my load. When I said, “Stan, is it good news or bad news?” and he said “Oh Jennifer, I’m so sorry,” I thought, Well this was not a good way to start this rather important day. Ooops.
I walked back into the conference room where the CEO was chatting with the conference staff and he said, “So, Jennifer, how have you been?” and out of my mouth I heard, “Well, not so good, Mark. I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer again.” And when they realized I had JUST been diagnosed with cancer again, they were shocked and horrified. Everyone cried but me. (There was no time on the conference schedule allotted to falling apart.)
And I am reminded that there is so much love that comes with a piece of bad news. The AV guy, who was in the room for my announcement, turned to me at the lunch break and told me his wife’s brother had bowel cancer and that there was a 50% chance his wife had the gene that would make it very likely she’d have it to. And there was a 50% chance their son would carry the gene if his wife did. And while he told me, he began to cry, over his brother in law, his wife (not sick yet but maybe threatened) and, most of all, over his perfect little baby boy who might have a ticking time bomb in his DNA. I have never ever felt so close to an AV guy. And it wasn’t just the AV guy. The small number of folks who knew were constantly and carefully checking in with me, meeting my eye, offering me quick words of support. As I left, their eyes filled with tears—human connection in a tall and sometimes soulless office building is always to be celebrated.
My teaching today—about the perils and beauties of uncertainty and complexity, came with an urgency and clarity that comes from being caught up in the deep uncertainties and complexities of life. I found myself transported out of my own plight and into the lives of all the people in the room, each with his personal tragedy and triumph, each with her own stories of love and loss.
Stan (my fabulous surgeon) removed a 6mm tumour of mid-grade cancer from a spot quite close to the original tumour. He believes it’s a leftover set of cells that has done its cancer-thing and grown back. If this is the only spot of cancer that is growing in my body, it’s a bummer but probably not a tragedy. I have to have more surgery (I had it removed last week but there is more cancer around it that needs to also be removed) and radiotherapy, and then they’ll watch me even more closely over the next years to see if it comes back. Stan assures me that if this is the only cancer, my prognosis hasn’t changed much.
If this is a harbinger of cancer elsewhere in my body, the scenario is very different. I’ll find out about that in about 2 weeks time. Next week there are scary scans and then the waiting period to find out what they have said. I’m not sure why the waiting period is worse after the scans than before. I’ll obviously keep you posted. In any case, this recurrence means that I fear it will take a long long time to feel safe from cancer again—if I ever do. It means that the various prescriptions and other supplements I’m taking—along with the very low sugar diet—are not actually keeping the cancer away. So I have to tell myself a new story about myself.
And if that’s the case, then I might need to learn to live with the cancer unsafety and have it be one of the bright lights in my life. I don’t quite know how to do that yet, but it seems like a rather diverting challenge while I’m getting my various forms of treatment. Perhaps we can help one another there—live into the joys that come with our mortality. Use that idea to make the fear of death less frightening and more a constant reminder to live today. I want that to be more than a slogan for me.
Dawn today was in Brisbane. I faced out at the river—I love to look at water—and then suddenly realized the dawn was behind me, silver and gold through the clouds. Dawn tomorrow is in Wellington, but after this late late plane ride, I might sleep through it.
(Slept mostly through dawn in Wellington–but it’s snowing here today! What a day!)