cancer ate my feminism (or did it?)

Last month, I had the good fortune to finally meet a remarkable fellow cancer fighter (and writer) with whom I’ve had a years-long virtual relationship.   As has happened many times before, when these virtual connections become “real,” I was struck with the sense that we’d met before, that we shared something inarticulable   This is how cancer binds us to one another.

As we exchanged messages in anticipation of our meeting, I made a passing comment about how it felt in some ways that cancer had eaten my feminism.  I heard the thought forming in my mind, and tossed the words off-handedly into an email that touched on some of my mixed feelings about being a stay-at-home mom, but as I saw them in front of me, I knew they had some weight.  My friend’s reply bore that out, and she said she was eager to hear more about what, exactly, that meant.

When we finally sat down for lunch, and talked for a breezy two and a half hours that positively flew by, we never did get to the deeper meaning behind my (not so) innocent remark.  But the sentiment has stuck with me, and I’m still trying to figure out why I said it, and what it means.

Despite having been a women’s studies minor in college (and writing my thesis in the discipline), I have never taken the time to create my own definition of “feminism.”  But once I made the decision to quit my job as an attorney and start working as a “full-time mother” (a term I despise, as if women who work outside the home are “part-time mothers”)  – I began to think a lot about how my life-long identification as a feminist now felt.  In truth, it felt quite awkward.  But why?

Choice-sign

I’ve gravitated toward this notion of feminism as giving women the opportunity to CHOOSE what their life will look like – to have autonomy, and freedom, to do and be whatever they want.  Under this view, the “choice” to leave the paid work force is just as valid as the choice to continue working outside the home – as it should be.  (Setting aside, for the time being, that many women do not possess this choice in the first place, for any number of socio-economic reasons.)  So when I blithely say that “cancer ate my feminism,” I suppose what I mean is that my cancer, and what it did to my psyche – giving rise to this hyper-awareness of the fragility of life – AND my body – rendering me unable to bear my own child, and therefore have some measure of control of the “timing” of becoming a parent – deprived me of making a truly independent choice about what I wanted my life as a mother to look like.

My feminism, in a theoretical sense, remains firmly in tact.  But from a certain perspective, cancer painted me into a corner, and left me feeling like I had no option but to throw myself as fully as possible into my job as a mother.  Yes, it’s true that my professional life was an unfulfilling dead-end, but it’s also true that when the disease struck, I was hoping to change jobs, and if it hadn’t struck, I might have been able to change my professional situation in such a way that when I did finally become a parent, I might have been more inclined to continue working as an attorney.  (Might, might might…) Instead, cancer came along, and everything else – my professional development and my plans for becoming a parent included – was swept aside.  It all came down to the fight.

None of this means that I regret my decision to spend the last two years at home with my incredible son, or to leave a frustrating job.  From another angle, cancer, rather than eating my feminism, has given me the opportunity to do something fantastic for our family, to have time and space to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do if I was caught between full-time parenting and full-time paid work (which is the reality for “working parents,” let’s face it.)  Maybe then, I am just once again experiencing the long, shifting shadows which cancer continues to cast over the life I now inhabit.  At the outset of my cancer journey, it never occurred to me that my personal politics and identity would be impacted so profoundly.  The intervening years, however, have taught me that cancer leaves no facet of the self untouched.

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hard work

This long, punishing winter has driven many of those around me to something close to madness.  People are starved for warmth and light and fresh air and green things growing all around them.  This cold and snow and ice, this inability to allow our bodies to move and feel freedom in the space of the outdoors, it is enough already.  It’s not just the toddlers among us, with their boundless energy and need for a constantly changing environment, who are feeling the walls closing in at this point.  It is everyone.

That being said, I thank this winter of our discontent for its part in the formula which created a recent powerful explosion of emotions.  A few weeks ago, for consecutive days, I found myself slumped in a heap, weeping, as I tried to manage my son’s moods, runny nose and seemingly endless dissatisfaction with every single thing I did.  For nearly two years, being a mom has felt like this euphoric ride, something I was blessed to finally experience after the nightmare of cancer and everything it left in its wake.   But during that bleak stretch, after days of no sleep, things began to crack, and I began to feel a frustration with my son (and myself) that caught me totally by surprise.  The guilt that grows out of feeling anger toward my child calls up so much that has come before, most particularly the hardship which my husband and I endured before we were able to become parents.  I feel I am not permitted to feel the hard emotions that come with being a parent, simply because I yearned for this so long, and because in the end, nothing is harder than cancer.  Where is my endless strength and resilience, my bottomless reservoir of patience and gratitude?  For a painful, prolonged moment, it certainly felt like it was all gone, perhaps buried under a snowdrift, or a sheet of ice.   It felt instead like the choice I have made, to devote myself to the full-time work of raising my son, has turned me into a desperate, angry shadow of the strong, clear-headed and loving mother I had thought I was.

parenting_is_hard

Sleep deprivation can cause all manner of irrational thoughts to go through one’s mind, and a few good nights rest thankfully helped right my psychic ship.  But there is something essential in what I have learned recently that feels true, regardless of how much sleep I have gotten, or being able to blow off steam with friends.  Not long ago, I was discussing the hard parts of parenting a toddler with a friend.  My friend hasn’t had cancer, but she did go through a seven year ordeal of infertility treatments and lost pregnancies before she finally had her daughter.  She, like me, is parenting a wonderful toddler who often drives her to the brink of madness.  And also like me, she is wracked with guilt whenever she finds herself locked in battle mode with her child.  We both feel, it seems, that we are not permitted to acknowledge how hard our jobs as mothers can be, when we longed for our children for years, and spent so much time not knowing if we were ever going to have the chance to parent at all.   And so we are caught.

The truth of parenting, with or without the added complications of cancer or infertility  (or both), is that it is the most wonderful and difficult thing we can do.  As I’ve said here before, cancer (at least temporarily) robbed me of the ability to embrace and accept ambiguity, or gray areas.  Cancer was wretched, the worst, the hardest and scariest thing of all.  It swallowed me whole, or so it seemed at the height of its torment, and when the darkness was all-consuming, it never dawned on me that this disease might ultimately yield some of the most meaningful relationships and connections I’ve ever known, or might allow me to open my mind and heart to the world in a way I was never able to before my illness.  Cancer was bad, and life, once cancer was ”over,” would magically become good again.

It’s no secret, to those of us who have been down this road, that cancer never really ends, no matter how many years of survivor status we can claim.  Its legacy is ever-lasting, and the trick is in managing the aftershock.  And while life “after” cancer is for the most part sweeter and happier than the world I inhabited while in the throes of treatment, there is nothing unambiguously easy or perfect about it.  And so it goes, with the reality of parenting my amazing son.  Naively, I expected to be rewarded with some kind of “free ride” as a parent, because, HEY, we’d already been through so much with cancer that we were going to be blessed with an “easy baby” who would grow magically into an “easy toddler” who of course would ultimately become a perfectly happy, well-adjusted teenager/adult.  Instead, what I now face is the same set of challenges which every parent endures, just with the added sense of gratitude that surviving cancer has bestowed on me.  After enduring what felt like the end of everything, I was finally blessed with a new beginning – which of course brings with it a whole new array of challenges.  But the next time I’m nose to nose with my screaming toddler after endless nights with no sleep, I’ll do my best to remember to be thankful for the chance to be here, doing this hard work, at all.

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cancer: then, now, always

Last month, an acquaintance from high school emailed me to report that she’d just been diagnosed with cancer.  I was momentarily floored, but unfortunately, the reality of young adult cancer is so much a part of my life that the initial shock quickly faded.  Sometimes, I’m more amazed at the number of people I know who haven’t had cancer yet.  Sometimes, it feels like this dread disease is coming for us all.

My high school acquaintance shared her story in brief, broad strokes, and I was gripped with the familiar sense of wanting to DO something for her, to change the past for her, or to smash something in shared outrage and sadness.  Her story, and those of others like her, like me, are endless.  We may regain our health, and perhaps find greater happiness than we knew before our illness, but there is no denying the tragedy that we’ve all endured; all is not necessarily well that ends well.  There is simply no regaining time and innocence lost.

What may emerge from that darkness, though, is the particular light that comes from people with a shared history of adversity lifting each other up.  When my acquaintance related that she’d leaned heavily on things I have written here, the tension at the heart of so much of what it means to be a survivor cinched tight around me – this sadness that she needs whatever it is I can offer, tempered with gratitude that somehow my own experience with cancer has helped relieve someone else’s burden, no matter how slightly.  Please, Universe, the survivor often pleads:  let there be some meaning in all of this madness.  Let my experience guide someone else who is forced along this tortured path.  In the end, the miracles of medicine aside, all we have is each other.

My journey out from the darkest recesses of what cancer wrought has been filled, mercifully, with remarkable human beings with whom I share an essential reality: the pain and fear that inevitably accompany a cancer diagnosis.  Though time and distance and death itself have tested and altered these relationships, they formed a powerful foundation for the person I’ve become since my illness.  When a new member joins our ranks, I feel all of these connections anew.  My hope for this person from my past, then, is that she can know the unique comfort of other survivors.

past present future

Still, when voices from my “cancer past” emerge, (as happened last week, in an event seemingly unrelated to the email from the high school friend), I feel a certain destabilization of my “new normal” – which, six years out from diagnosis, doesn’t feel so new anymore.  Most of the time, cancer feels old, a million years ago.  There is simply no room for it any more, not when I am trying to be a mother and a good partner and also find time to make space for my own self-care.  But when an email appears from an old virtual cancer friend , it feels once again very much at the center of my psychic universe. For in truth, it is always at the center.  When it feels otherwise, it’s simply because of daily distractions, the business of living.  Whenever I’m presented with an opportunity to look inward, and consider the aspects of my history that are etched most deeply, I realize there is nothing larger and more significant than the fact of my illness.

Managing as a survivor – at least for me – means fighting in some sense to deny the centrality of cancer in my life.  For if you can’t ever really get away from it, if you can’t just “forget” for a moment that you were ever sick, or temporarily erase the memories of that fateful meeting with your oncologist, or the moment you were wheeled into the OR for your surgery – how are you supposed to fully inhabit a life among the living?  When I recall the days of my diagnosis and treatment, I feel the acute vertigo of staring over the abyss – coming head to head with death, in some profoundly raw and unexpected way.  It’s been six years, and I still feel it.  Not constantly, but vividly, in particular when one of these voices from the past emerges, and calls it all up.  That’s how I know it’s all still right there, just below the skin.  If only those memories could be extracted from my consciousness, removed like the cancer itself.  The disease is gone, but the impact is forever. So maybe, then, it’s never really gone at all.

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reclaiming complexity

Many months ago, around the time of my son’s first birthday, I was prompted by a friend to reflect on my decision to leave my job as a child advocate attorney to become a stay-at-home mother.  I shared my thoughts with my friend, but stuffed them in the “draft” file here at See Emily Play.  Eight months later, these themes have crept up again, and it feels right to excavate my earlier thoughts.  While a large part of me feels that what I am grappling with is merely the same “having it all” conundrum that plagues all working parents (at least women), another part of me –the part that wants to scream “ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THIS CANCER SHIT!” – knows that the nature of my struggle with these issues is tainted by the never-ending aftershocks of my illness.

And so it was last week that I found myself once again scrutinizing and second-guessing the decisions I have made about my own life path since becoming a mother, and feeling that those decisions were essentially taken out of my hands by my cancer.  This unexpected inner turmoil was prompted by something seemingly wonderful.  One of my dearest friends, a co-worker from my former job, has finally found new work after a protracted period professional misery (to which I can obviously relate, having lived through it myself.)  My friend is also a mother of a young child just the same age as my son.  For the past year-plus, she has been doing the thing I deemed myself unable to do – she has worked full-time while raising a fantastic daughter.  In truth, I look at what she does, managing work and family, and I am totally amazed.

While I left an unhappy job situation to work as a stay-at-home mom, my friend has left to begin a new professional adventure, a prospect that for me, at this point, seems remote if not downright impossible.  How, I found myself wondering after a celebratory lunch with my friend and another former co-worker, will I ever be able to reclaim my identity as a lawyer, a professional, someone with an active intellect?

tricky and beautiful

tricky and beautiful

I will never know what kind of decisions I would have made if I hadn’t had cancer, if our son hadn’t come to us through adoption after years of waiting to start our family.  But in rare moments, like the one I experienced briefly last week, it feels like cancer painted me into a corner – in this realm as in many others – and robbed me of the chance to make choices and build a life as I truly wanted it to look.   More insidiously, it seems, cancer has deprived me of the chance to recognize and accept the on-going complexity of being a parent while wanting to maintain a distinct sense of self.  As survivors, we’re conditioned to be endlessly, unquestioningly grateful for the gift of Simply Being here.  Compound that with the blessings that finally arrived in the form of our phenomenal son, and there is scant space in which to navigate the rocky waters of a life that includes raising a family while maintaining one’s autonomy.

After cancer, it feels like some kind of betrayal to be anything less than ecstatic about the life I now inhabit.  Honestly, life now is a thousand times fuller, happier and more beautiful than anything I could have ever imagined, before OR after cancer.  (Life Before Cancer consisting of a largely undefined blur.)  But fullness, happiness and beauty are not the antitheses of complexity, or challenge, or even difficulty.  So, rather than betraying the forces and fortune for which I am indeed truly grateful, I hope to do a better job of honoring them by embracing complexity, rather than denying it.

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a different kind of marathon

Today marks my first day of rest since officially embarking on training for the Philadelphia Marathon in November.  I ran five of the last six days, in soul-crushing heat and humidity.  Mercifully, I had a great running companion at my side for Saturday’s grueling 8.5 miles.  I’m delighting in my day off, but my mind remains focused on the 17 weeks ahead.  I’m proud of myself for getting out there every morning this past week, but know better than to pat myself on the back too vigorously at this early stage.  There are countless miles to go, literally and figuratively.

At the start of this berserk challenge, I can’t help but think back on my four months of chemotherapy for stage III ovarian cancer.  Then, it was the bleakest of the bleak mid-winter.  The days were relentlessly gray and cold.  It rained forever.  The sun, it seemed, had gone into extended hiding, as if it had no business shining on my fight.

Those black days were the beginning of a very different kind of marathon.  My husband, hoping to gain some measure of control over a situation that seemed otherwise completely beyond any, printed out a stack of calendar pages, each one marking a week in the epic journey on which I was about to embark.  Pages to keep track of my seemingly endless medications, pages to mark time, to give us some measure, some way to feel that we were moving toward something – health, cure? – and moving away from something else – death?  In such moments, any small means of taking an active roll in your fight, doing something to push back against a seemingly invincible foe, must be embraced.  Any tool at your disposal feels like a lifeline.

Just a whole lotta miles.

Just a whole lotta miles.

In anticipation of beginning training, I memorialized my running schedule on our family’s master calendar.  Each day is marked with the number of miles I must run – or as a blissful “rest day.” As I plugged in the numbers, as they climbed up and up and up – 20 miles???  I am supposed to run 20 miles???? – I felt my heart begin to sink a bit.  I thought not so much “I can’t do this,” as I did, “This is insane, and could prove incredibly difficult.  I can only hope I am really up for this.”

Until that moment, I’d been in a state of excited ignorance about the rigors of marathon training.  I was just so unabashedly fired up at the prospect of running my first 26.2.  After all, I’d run five half marathons in the last two years, the most recent being my strongest by far.  How could I not be ready for this?  I’d also enlisted two friends to run with me, and I had their enthusiasm to bolster me.  Wasn’t this just going to be a four month long psych-fest, as I shared virtual fist-bumps with my friend training in Denver, and actual fist-bumps with my local running partners? Wouldn’t we meet at the starting line in mid-November, lean and limber and as ready as humanly possible to rock 26.2 miles?

Well, much of this remains to be seen, but now that the reality of training is upon me, and the extreme heat of mid-summer is roasting our bodies and brains, I am prepared to acknowledge the arduousness of what I am setting out to do.  It’s going to take all of me – discipline, a relentless focus, an unwillingness to quit when things get hard, a good few aches and pains, and probably no small amount of tears.  Not unlike a certain bleak four-month stretch all those years ago.

When I started my treatment for Stage III ovarian cancer, my oncologist told me, with grim honesty, that the treatment was grueling, and would have a significant impact on my “quality of life.”  (Who, at the age of 35, ever expects to hear those words, or even understands what they mean?)  She also told me that some people find the treatment too taxing, and decide not to complete the prescribed six rounds of chemo.  It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t undergo all six rounds of treatment, even as things grew harder as the months wore on, as my stamina flagged and my heart sank further into blackness.  Quitting was never an option.  I wanted to live.

Today, I want to run.  I want to run 26.2 miles through my beloved city.  I want to run for the friends I have lost to this wretched disease, and with the friends who have cheered and loved me through my trip to the brink and back again.  Every stride will be a reminder of both how far I have come, and of a journey that will never end.

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LUSH LIFE

The rain won’t stop.  The spring and early summer have been a seemingly endless stretch of rain-soaked days.  The world has turned relentlessly green.  I’ve heard weather-related griping about commuting into the city on rainy morning after rainy morning; wet basements; treacherous roadways; general gloom; cabin fever; oppressive humidity.  All worth grumbling about, I suppose.  But while others have reached their limit, and can’t take another drop, I, perhaps perversely, have been basking in the life-giving power of the rain, and what it has done for my burgeoning gardens.

Like so much of what is most meaningful in life today, my passion for plant-life grew out of the transformative experience of cancer.  In the present, everything I do to tend and care for my gardens is rooted in the energy I devoted to our little backyard on Orianna Street, all those years ago.

I rarely invoke fate, but in hindsight I feel there was some sort of cosmic force, which lead us to the house on Orianna Street, with its secret back garden, where we lived (and nearly died, it felt) during my cancer treatment.  I was diagnosed not quite a year and a half after we moved in, and during the springtime of my treatment, our small back plot, with its lovingly planted perennials, became my refuge.  I knew nothing about plants when we arrived, but under the tutelage of a wise friend from work and my beautiful neighbor, I slowly learned.  But most of what happened was instinctive.  We’d been blessed with a gorgeous, miniature oasis, blooming in carefully planned cycles throughout the spring and summer.  As I fought this disease, I was driven to help nurture these other living things, to keep them healthy and vibrant.  I wasn’t sure I could do it for myself, so at the very least I could do it for them.  This tending felt essential to my own survival.

My memories of myself during treatment are of being drained of life and color.  I would catch myself in the mirror and see a ghost.   Life and color, then, were forces to be treasured, and held sacred.  Watering, weeding, deadheading, mulching – all of these became rituals to sustain my flagging spirit.  With solemn determination, I would pour my limited reserves of energy into our garden, and then sit back and breathe in its bounty.

You've come a long way, baby.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Last year, I visited our old neighbors, and learned that our landlords, who had recently moved back into the house on Orianna, had torn out the garden, after the tenants who came after us had cut everything back to make space for keg parties, or something equally blasphemous.  From a high window in our old neighbor’s house, I looked down into the yard and saw the newly designed outdoor space, barren of greenery, where the garden used to be.  It broke my heart a little bit, but not entirely.  For the life from that oasis that nourished me during my darkest days carries on in my own new gardens, just across the river.  The irises and coreopsis and sedum that I dug up and transplanted in miniature three years ago have powerfully taken root in new beds, and have been joined by exploding hydrangea, rosemary, loosestrife and day lilies.  I continue to find joy and delight in ensuring their health, just as much as I do in taking care of my own.

I love this rain-soaked stretch we are in, as it gives everything I have planted a sweet, sustained drink.  There is green everywhere, and splashes of color.  There is robust life.  Nothing could be more remarkable.

 

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LET ME THINK BACK

In preparation for an upcoming panel discussion about young adult cancer and social media, I’ve been thinking back on the motivating purpose behind my years’ worth of writing about cancer and its aftermath.  This reflective process began slowly a few weeks back, and has been intensifying in recent days.  My first realization: I am no kind of expert on anything. I am one person, with my own experience.  Cancer may touch us all in some universal way, but it also has deeply personal and distinct repercussions for each individual who falls prey to it.  Honestly, I am not sure what meaningful insight I can offer about my haphazard life as a cancer blogger.  As my husband remarked about Keith Richards when his tell-all memoir came out: “If you want to know about Keith, just listen to the music.  It’s all there.”  In order to explain why I have persisted in this seemingly self-indulgent exercise, so long after finishing treatment, all I can really offer is every word that has preceded these.

A part of me feels I’ve long since drained the well of my cancer experience, and that the “why?” and “what?” behind it all is embedded in words already written here, or maybe even here.  I just celebrated five years cancer-free.  My oncologist told me last month that I’ve “graduated” – to yearly check-ups, not from Cancer U. completely.  Isn’t it enough already?  I have a child to raise and am gearing up to train for my first marathon.  There is more to life.

There is more, but it isn’t enough already.  It isn’t enough, because cancer keeps happening – hopefully not to me again (though there’s a decent chance of that) but to other young people all around me, and they are entering my life in varied and unexpected ways.  Periodically, I get an email from Imerman Angels, and they put me in touch with another young woman with ovarian or some similar gynecologic cancer.  A few days ago, my mother-in-law called to tell me that the wife of one of her cousins was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and to ask if I’d be willing to talk to her.  So the other day, before mowing the lawn, I put on my Survivor Hat, sat on our front step, and spent almost an hour answering questions and reflecting on my own cancer journey.  Here on the verge of summer 2013, five years later, cancer feels very much alive and well, occupying a central and powerful place in my consciousness.

hopefully it's not all blah blah blah

hopefully it’s not all blah blah blah

In trying to unravel the meaning of these endless piles of words, the purpose they serve, I suddenly think about the oral tradition – how stories, repeated endlessly, are passed on, carrying meaning, providing lessons and insight for generation after generation.  My story perhaps has meaning not because it is “mine,” or “about me,” but rather because it represents hope for someone else, someone at the starting line, facing the unknown.  In telling this story over and over, to different people, and from different angles, I strive for humility, and universality.  Every time I talk to another young woman facing ovarian cancer, I am always careful to say, “Everyone is different.  Everyone has a different experience.”  And it’s true.  The woman I talked to yesterday seemed very concerned about being able to work through her treatment.  I told her I was out of work for seven months, between surgeries and chemo, and couldn’t really have fathomed attempting to work in the condition I was in.  But that was me.  Whether by virtue of my naturally reclusive temperament (and perhaps the fact that I was dissatisfied with my job) or the rigorous course of treatment to which I was subjected, I in some ways needed the kind of isolation that I ended up experiencing.  I needed the space  – when I was feeling well enough to appreciate it – to try and understand what was happening to me.  Cancer was, for me, as much about the psychic process as the physical one, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it nearly swallowed me whole.  Another person, differently disposed, undergoing a different course of treatment, will react and fight in her own unique way.

In spite of the things that make each person facing cancer unique, the common element, whether or not explicitly acknowledged, is the fear and uncertainty.  Terror does not seem too strong a word.  So while I may not speak openly with all of the young women I’ve come to know through cancer about our shared fear of dying young, of leaving our families or never being able to have them at all, the fact that I am still here, at this point, this far out, may just be all the tacit reassurance I can offer.  It may also be what is needed most.

So why this, then?  Why don’t I just plant a flag on the moon of my survivorship and be done with it?  Perhaps because cancer gave me the excuse to finally be the writer I always dreamed of being.  I never took writing workshops or seriously pursued writing professionally (sorry, attorney friends – brief writing doesn’t count.)  But one truth about writing always stuck in my head: “Write what you know.”  My brief flirtations with writing fiction always seemed to fall flat, felt false and strained.  But the volumes upon volumes of journals I kept all through adolescence, and the vigorous epistolary dialogues I maintained with many friends for years and years (back when people wrote letters) – in those heaps of words, I would periodically sense a lyricism, or a truth, that felt important and real.

In the form of cancer and its attendant upheaval, I finally found a story worth telling, or at least a story that had the potential to mean something to someone outside of my own head (the curse of every devoted journal-scribbling adolescent.)  I can say all of this with a straight face because other young people  – especially women, especially ovarian cancer patients – have told me that my story has given them a measure of hope, a reason to believe that they, too, might live to see Five Years Out.   The power of this story that I have been blessed to live out is simply that it continues to unfold, that I am here to tell it.

As long as there are those who need to hear this story, I will continue to tell it.  With its repetition, hopefully its meaning with change and deepen.  Telling it, and connecting with those who benefit from its significance, continues to feed my own spirit.  For life, once cancer recedes, remains hard and confusing.  It grows more beautiful and poignant, but it never stops being complicated.  For me, the telling of this story is a reminder of the heartache and loss which defined so much of my first years in the throes of cancer, and the nightmarish hangover to which it gave rise.  It allows to me to hold close friends I have lost, and those who continue to fight much harder than I ever had to.  For others, I only hope that mine is a story that offers some measure of reassurance in the face of so much that is unknown.

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PERFECTION, or WHAT IS HARD

Last weekend, at the First Descents Climb-a-Thon, our belayer was, quite unexpectedly, a 14-year-old boy.  When the day began, I formed a climbing group with another cancer survivor, her brother and his girlfriend.  I liked them immediately.  There was a toughness, a snarkiness, in this other survivor – traits, I believe, that many of us share.  Perhaps these are traits borne of having endured the very worst.  Regardless, it took no time for that familiar survivor affinity to take root.

As FD campers, we are used to encouraging and supporting each other no matter how messy, awkward or fearful we may be.  We are used to instructors who are patient, intuitive and big-hearted.  What we are not used to is having kids young enough to be our own children (in my case, at least), non-chalantly belaying us, telling us we “got this,” when we hit a snag on our climbs, and asking us, with unthinking reflexivity, if the reason we asked to come down before we reached the top of a route was because we “got scared.”  To be fair, our young belayer was just that – young – and the innocence and naivete of youth are qualities we have all possessed at some point in our lives, and in many ways, are to be treasured.  Still, gathered that Saturday afternoon to climb for ourselves and other survivors, there was something peculiarly unnerving about having a teenager on belay, keeping us tethered as we fought our way upward.

As the afternoon wore on, and our climbs grew more challenging, my fellow climbers and I shared bemused asides as we marveled at the irony of this young boy who had our lives in his hands.  “You’re thinking too much,” he’d say at times, or, as a proposed solution to one of us who was stuck mid-route, “Just do it.”  If only.

Looks scary, no?

Looks scary, no?

At day’s end, it dawned on me:  how could this boy possibly know what we have seen?  What are the odds that at 14, he’d ever even considered a world where things were unattainable, unfair, painful or Terrifying with a Capital T?  Sometimes, I wanted to say to him, just trying isn’t enough.  Sometimes, sheer force of will isn’t enough to get you past the overhang and onto the next foothold.  Sometimes, there is something real and very scary blocking your way.  And sometimes, you don’t end up raising your arms in triumph.  Sometimes, you are bested.  And depending on the nature of the beast you are facing, sometimes you just don’t make it.

An ornery indoor climbing route is not cancer.  But just as when I was on rock for the first time in Wyoming three and a half years ago, the struggle to conquer that route called up many of the same feelings that marked my experience fighting my disease.  My new survivor friend confirmed the universality of my reaction, as she grumbled about how she would have appreciated more active support and instruction from our young guide, rather than his uninspired clichés and generally blasé attitude about what we were trying to do.  Her grumbling made me laugh: YES, I said. THAT KID HAS NO IDEA WHAT’S OUT THERE IN THE WORLD.  DOESN’T HE REALIZE WHAT WE HAVE BEEN THROUGH?  We were laughing, but we were semi-serious.

In a bit of symmetry, the yoga studio where I practice is this month considering the theme of sickness, disease and death.  (Fun!)  Perhaps it goes without saying that every time I am on my mat, I think about my illness, and specifically the toll it took on my physical being.  But this month’s theme is resonating particularly forcefully, as it is allowing me the opportunity to consider the inevitability and the value of struggle – and the foolishness of attempting to attain perfection.  I will never be “thankful” for my cancer.  But I will continually strive to retain the lessons it taught me about struggle.  I did not endure cancer’s wrath because of the strength of my spirit, no more than my friends who succumbed to the disease died because of the weakness of theirs.  That part of the equation is down to simple luck – good or bad.  But when cancer takes us through its torment, it is forcing us to confront life’s screaming imperfection.

pincha mayurasana: hard

pincha mayurasana: hard

Yoga, like cancer, has taught me to embrace imperfection, and the power of struggle.  This morning, I continued my struggles – destined to be long, and perhaps never-ending –    with pincha mayurasana.  Each time I approach this forearm balance, I feel leaden, constricted, and certain I will break my neck.  But I keep at it, and hopefully, each time I approach it, I chip away at some of the fear that is holding me back.  As a child whose eyes may not yet have strained to find light in life’s darker recesses, our young friend from the climbing gym last weekend most likely doesn’t think about being on rope  – reaching, pushing, slipping, straining – as a metaphor for much of anything.  But the survivor in me will forever view physical challenge – on rope, on the mat, on pavement – as a reminder to embrace what is hard, and let go of imagined perfection.

 

 

 

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mid-life young adult cancer crisis

Has my license to write about cancer expired?  I’ve been thinking about the countless numbers of young adults who have been diagnosed with cancer since I entered this universe over five years ago.  I’ve mused on the lives lost, the brave people I knew who this rotten disease managed to take down.  I’ve thought about the people I know who have devoted their lives so much more actively and purposefully to the “cause.”  At this point, what does my life have to do with cancer?  Does the crowded world of cancer bloggers require my highly irregular reporting about my “life with cancer,” when I’m perfectly healthy, and when my “life” is really about so many other things at this point?

These are not questions I ask in order to prompt support from people saying, “You have so much great stuff to say.  Always keep writing.”  I ask these questions because with each passing day that I am away from my chosen profession, home raising my son, I wonder what I am doing to be an active and meaningful voice in the world of young adult cancer.  Being the best mother I can to my son doesn’t feel like enough of a transformative gesture; I would have been doing that regardless of my diagnosis.  After all these years, I still feel compelled to be Doing Something, shining some kind of light.  The sense of isolation I felt during my period of diagnosis, treatment and even the early stages of my recovery is something I will never forget.  Once I regained some semblance of physical and emotional stability, I pledged that I would do whatever I could so that other young adults going through similar ordeals would not have to endure that same feeling.

Never mind that it feels somewhat disingenuous to even call my self a “young adult” at this point.  With my diagnosis at age 35, I was already on the outskirts of young adulthood.  Five years later, I have arguably entered mid-life.  Isn’t it time for the old folks to step aside and make way for the next generation of young adult cancer warriors?

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once a climber…Moab, UT, April 2010

It is no accident that these questions have arisen in the wake of my decision to participate in a First Descents fundraising Climb-a-Thon next month.  Not so very long ago, First Descents felt like the beating heart of my cancer survivorship.  After all, without that remarkable organization, I might never have seen my way out of the post-treatment wilderness.  From August of 2009 to July of 2011, my life seemed in some way measured in intervals between camps.  During that time, it was impossible for me to imagine a time when FD wouldn’t be a constant force in my life, or a time when I would go more than a few months between camps, fundraising events, or athletic challenges taken on under the Team FD mantle.  After kayaking in Montana in 2011, when I decided that my camper days were likely over, I was committed to remaining actively involved with the organization and its spirit.

Parenthood, understandably, changed everything.  Time became a rare and precious commodity.  Priorities shifted, seismically.  Our family’s entire center of gravity changed, and my husband and I both instinctively adapted, making time with and responsibility to our son our chief priority.  The magic and mystery of becoming a parent almost seamlessly reordered our lives.

Last week, when word of a local First Descents fundraiser came through my email, this dormant fire in me began to flicker anew.  It’s been nearly three years since I was climbing in Utah; I shudder to think of the physical struggles I may face when I am on rope at GO VERTICAL in two weeks time.  But the pull was irresistible, so I cleared the time on our family’s weekend calendar and signed up.  I even started plugging the event on social media and scrounging for donations from friends and family who are probably suffering from a bit of charity fatigue.  It felt like I was being reunited with a long-lost friend.

My hope is that when I arrive to climb on March 2, I will encounter a whole new group of fierce young adults who are living with cancer or its aftermath.  Some of them may be half my age.  But rather than feeling like an ex-young adult cancer survivor, I hope to be able to show, just by being there, that life  – fully lived – does indeed go on “after” cancer.  When I sat in my hospital bed after my first surgery and listened to one of my doctors talk about what surveillance might look like YEARS down the road, I cried and shook my head in dismay.  It seemed like an impossibility that would never come.  At the height of my health crisis, the future was meaningless; it couldn’t exist for me.  The life-giving parts of my body had just been cut out of me.  So had cancer, but all I could feel in that moment was the absence of the life I would never be able to create.  At 35, what could the future possibly look like, and would I even live long enough to see it?

But at 40, here I am: Mom to the most beautiful boy in the world; climber, of sorts; fundraiser for the group to which I owe so much of my life after cancer.  Perhaps what’s meaningful is that I am still here to do any of this at all.

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moments of surrender

As it turns out, there is much more to fear in life than the onset of a life-threatening illness.  Fear of weakness, of facing limitations, of inadequacy, of conflict, of vulnerability – over the last five years, these manifestations of fear have all lurked around the psychic periphery since cancer tried and failed to fell me.  These manifestations are perhaps less dramatic, but no less hindering, than fear of a life cut short.

When I began my post-cancer yoga practice almost two years ago, I never expected that one of its primary lessons would be about recognizing the on-going power of fear.  After finishing treatment, once the long psychic hangover of chemo resolved, I joked that now that I’d faced cancer, there was really nothing left for me to fear.  It’s a truism about cancer survival that my experiences with First Descents drove home, powerfully and repeatedly.  As I rappelled off an enormous cliff in the Grand Tetons in the summer of 2009, the terror that gripped me was not of my ropes snapping and plummeting to a rocky death; it was reliving that which gripped me when I woke from surgery to the news of my cancer.  And reliving that fear, with awareness, helped me to conquer it anew.

But the conquering of fear ultimately may be a practice, like yoga, rather than a finite act.  Surviving my illness allowed me to pass through one kind of fear, leaving me in a place where its legacy is far more nebulous, but just as potent.

looks pretty, right?

Last Monday, after weeks of procrastination, I finally reached out to my yoga teacher about my problematic relationship with wheel pose.  It’s a pose that I’d easily attained in my life prior to cancer, when I practiced yoga sporadically and less seriously – when my body was much younger and leaner, before it was battered by surgeries and chemo.  In my current body, though, wheel has become a mocking enemy of sorts – something totally counter to the spirit of yoga.  With wheel, I’d erected an insurmountable barrier, and felt my inability to get there was symbolic of the fundamental damage that my cancer fight had done to me – and that for all of the rocks climbed and half marathons run, there was a way in which I would never be able to fully reclaim my body, or even all of myself, from this disease.

When I brought my frustrations to my teacher’s attention, and in the process shared the condensed version of my cancer story, she responded with characteristic openness and generosity, and sent me several long notes with ideas about how to approach the pose and where the issues might be in my body.  During the course of the week, as her emails and ideas rolled in, I’d set myself up on the floor, and study what was going on with my body – were my hands flat on the ground?  Where was I feeling constriction?  Was I lifting too much with my arms and not enough with my legs?  I’d assess, and then shoot off another note with my findings.  Suddenly, the monster became approachable, as we worked on solving this puzzle together.

I headed to class last Friday morning excited, curious to see what I could do with all of this new information.  Toward the end of class, after vigorous vinyasa work, my teacher, who customarily ends practice with a series of backbends culminating in wheel, shared with the entire class some of the tips and suggestions we’d been exchanging over email.  She demonstrated the pose using blocks under her hands, and in my mind’s eye, things began to seem possible.  She invited the entire class, filled with many people who have an established practice with wheel, to consider thinking about the pose in light of these suggestions.

I took my two blocks and pushed them against the wall.  I lay on my back, and flipped my palms onto the blocks.  Then, somehow, without the dread that had filled my mind and heart every other time I’d approached the pose, I extended my arms, and lifted my booty and my back off the ground, and found myself staring at the studio’s brick wall.  How was this happening?  My teacher approached.  “That’s gorgeous, “ she told me.  “You’re doing it.”  Then it became real; I was up, in wheel.  I felt myself begin to shake.  “Come down when you’re ready,” she said.

I lowered myself to the ground.  “You did it!” she said again.  “How do you feel?”

The swelling in my chest rose to my throat, then my eyes, and tears ran quietly down my cheeks.  “OK,” I said, gulping air, trying to contain a sob.  I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “That was amazing,” she said.

We moved into shavasana, and more tears came, as I suddenly felt myself back in the moment of my diagnosis.  Outside the studio walls was the dark and chill of late fall, the time of year when cancer visited its wrath upon me.  This momentous anniversary, five whole years, the fear I still hold in my heart, the worry that I won’t stay here for my son – all of it was loosed by this pose.  I swallowed hard, and realized what had been unhooked when I lifted my heart to the sky.  No wonder, then, that I had allowed wheel to feel so impossible for so long.  My body knew something my mind did not, and was trying to protect me from that persistent hurt.  So much of my survival has been about reclaiming and proving my strength, both physical and psychic.  But part of survival is a pain that never leaves, but rather lingers, waiting for release.

These moments of surrender need not be feared.

 

 

 

 

Posted in First Descents, Life After Cancer, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments