One year out

Anniversaries and birthdays are funny things. We celebrate (or mourn) the passing of our planet in its rotation around the sun, and count those rotations to mark the most important moments of our lives. This week marks one rotation from the beginning of my second visit to Cancer Island.

The anniversary arrives just as I am finishing the last chapter of my third book, tentatively titled Unlocking Possibility. The book and the cancer have travelled together (as, alas, Simple Habits for Complex Times did with the first cancer). I wrote the first outline while waiting for the results of the first surgery (which looked hopeful, since the biopsy had been negative). The hope–and the book–were shelved for a while as I dealt with the diagnosis. I wrote chapters in hospital gowns waiting for tests our appointments or for my four surgeries. I brought my draft with me to the daily radiation sessions 24 times. And now, one year later, I’m nearly done with the book. And wow do I hope I’m totally done with holidays on Cancer Island.

I don’t think a person can have a year like this one has been and not be changed by it. And as someone who cares so deeply about my work, I’m sure my thinking and teaching and writing have been materially shaped as well. And what a year it has been! The earthquake that shook Wellington in November is still visible all over the city as cranes take buildings apart or put them back together. The earthquake election that shook the US at the same time is still visible on every news channel. The unexpected death of a healthy friend left me spinning and bewildered. Terrorism, freak weather events, mass migration, human mortality—the world is boiling. No year has ever made it more clear to me that the human condition is instability and uncertainty. We are made of change.

Through it all, my own world has been shifting and shaping and re-forming. This time last year I was curled up on my sofa, my friends forming a human shield around me, as I waited for the first biopsy results. I didn’t understand then the difference between a local recurrence (where the cancer basically regrows in the same spot) and a distant one (when it sets up shop in a different organ). That meant I didn’t know that while the first is not particularly pleasant, it’s not necessarily deadly. And of course, at first I didn’t know if the cancer was local or distant, stage ii or stage iv. At each turn, the cancer surprised me—if my first cancer had been standard vanilla, the second had the gastronomic punch of mocha bacon gratin with boiled cabbage crisps and dog fur foam.

As I wrote about our human predilection towards creating (and then amassing data to support) simple stories, I fought and fought the urge to just pull the covers over my head and give up. As I wrote about the human predilection for assuming we are right, I battled the standard solutions my various oncologists were offering me, seeking to understand and question and push into new possibilities.

And so here we are now. I am making friends with the future again, knowing that while no one promises that you’ll see it, it is better to try and shape what’s possible than to (falsely) believe you can control it or (wrongly) believe you have no control at all. I am falling ever deeper in love with our humanity, with the mortality and fallibility that are not the scourge of human existence but its greatest gift. Because we are here so short a time, we need to live each day with purpose and gratitude; because we are so flawed, we need to turn to each other to see a fuller picture, to remind ourselves that we are always on the limited side of our own eyes.

Today or tomorrow I will finish my book and get it ready to send to colleagues and friends and my editor. The wait for the peer reviews will cause a little of anxiety, but it’s nothing next to the wait for biopsy results. The delight in holding the finished book will be amplified by the difficulty of my life while writing it. The fact that the draft has already opened new conversations with my kids (this is the first book of mine they’ve ever read) means that this book has already delivered joys the other books have not. And in one year, I’ll hope that Cancer Island is a tiny speck in the far-off distance, that my book is in my hand, and that the future that we create and that creates us is less filled with our divisions and hatreds and more filled with our common loves and hopes and connections.

PS:  If you’d like to read and respond to the first draft of the new book, please email Diana ( with that request.

2 thoughts on “One year out

  1. Jennifer, I am so happy you get to put this past year behind you with a book in your hand and the view of Cancer Island receding into the distance. I look forward to reading your book, and hope to be be able to celebrate with you in person at some point in the not too distant future!

    Liked by 1 person

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