I remember this phase from my last trip to Cancer Island. When I was finished with chemotherapy, everyone wanted to know if I was finished with cancer. “All good now?” they’d ask. “Are you well now?”
I get it. I have to bite back that question myself these days when a friend has cancer. I, too, want to know that they are now safe and off of Cancer Island for good.
And of course, it’s way more complex than that. First of all, just finishing the hospital part of the cancer treatment doesn’t mean even that part is over. My radiotherapy side effects are greater today than they were for most of the treatment time itself. They’re getting better, but wow they are still present.
After the initial side effects go away, there’s still all the medicine and the hormonal stuff to deal with. I’ve had two months of the belly shot and before long I’ll switch off of Tamoxifen (with its side effects that were never bad for me) and onto another class of breast cancer drugs, one of the three Aromatase Inhibitors (AIs) which have a different set of side effects I haven’t tried yet. So I get the belly shot side effects (the slam into menopause) plus the AI side effects. Then the radiotherapy medium term effects can come back years later. And of course the cancer can come back at any time. I have two women loosely connected with me who have just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer a decade or more after getting off cancer island the first time. This is a long game.
Ok, so that’s the depressing part of this little update. But, as someone who spent yesterday flying to and from Christchurch to go to my friend Tim’s funeral, I can tell you there are some pretty fabulous parts about right now, as I float away from Cancer Island.
The first part is I’m alive. Let’s just pause right now and take it in, because your reading this means you’re alive too. In the last weeks, I have spent too much time at the hospital and many many tears mourning my friend Tim. Being alive is the most astonishing privilege of all. And perhaps the most fragile privilege of all. Since I have had cancer, I have become more alive. This is a side effect of cancer that people don’t tend to talk about, and it’s the best one of all. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with your death makes your life sparkle more. When you’re healthy, it’s hard to remember that you’re mortal at all—it all seems so easy. When you’ve got cancer, each day is at least partly about working to live an extra day. The difficulty and dedication makes life worth more—or makes me notice how much it has always been worth.
And there are other delights. Not going to the hospital each morning, a delight I’ve had for almost every day of my life, is now something I notice and celebrate. If you didn’t go to the hospital this morning, you could celebrate too. (Sorry, M and others who did go to the hospital this morning—or slept there overnight. Your delight time is coming…)
I love the taste of my cinnamon green tea, first sent to me years ago by Beth and now ordered in bulk and stuffed into suitcases each time I’m in the US . I carry it with me everywhere and associate it with warmth and goodness. In the dark of a sleeping airplane, resting on the podium on the stage in a big lecture hall, sitting on my desk at home—my tea brings me comfort and joy. It stands for home and for friendship and for the unexpected places we find sweetness in the world (in this case, from tree bark—go figure).
I am grateful for the people I’ve met as I’ve searched for resources to help me through some of the hard times. There is the crew at the Tory Urban Retreat, and the way a piece of the city now feels like home to me and a little band of people feel like the good fairies in my life. Walking up the stairs to their oasis is now one of my joys. There’s Dana Donofree who started the magical AnaOno, and helps make women who have been battered by cancer feel beautiful. When her emails say “Hello beautiful,” and tell me I’m “never alone,” I actually believe it. Because Dana herself had breast cancer, I feel the care in the sewing and the delicate packaging as an expression of her delight at being alive, and her support for the rest of us.
And of course there are more and more and more things. The pink orchid a friend sent that looks like a leopard in its center. The feel of the silk sheets I splurged on when I was first diagnosed, and then splurged on again when I was second diagnosed. The sound of Aidan facetiming with Naomi and laughing. The fizz of champagne and sparkling conversation with friends. Feeling the volcano of love I have for my friends and my family and my clients. Being alive can be hard and painful and desperately sad. And it can be joyful and imbued with love and connection and meaning. And all of that is called “alive.”
So, tonight I’ll pick which one of my billions of creams to put on this burn of mine (the one from my mother? From Melissa?). And tomorrow I’ll try again to write Chapter 4 of my new book, and I’ll head down to Tory Urban Retreat and breathe again. And I will give thanks for my breath and for my heart beating and for the connections I have with each of you. Because I’m not done yet. I’m not done with anything yet.