It may be that my current state of health and wellness – which I feel more acutely and intensely each time I go for a long bike ride (which I did yesterday) or push through a run when I am not feeling at my best (as I did today) – has heightened my preoccupation with illness. How people handle it. How they share it or hide it, embrace it in some reluctant way. What it means to have your body betray you in an obvious, tangible way, in a way that robs you of energy, that gets into your head and saps your spirits. Maybe this all goes right to the essence of what it means to be “alive” in the fullest, most literal sense.
There is a lot of chronic illness around me – my husband, sister-in-law and two dear friends all struggle with chronic GI problems – which have, to varying degrees, taken over their lives at one time or another. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis over twenty years ago, and the disease completely transformed her reality, quite literally altered her destiny.
As I watch all of these people struggle with symptoms and flare-ups, as I see how unpredictable a chronic illness can be, how you can wake up each day not knowing how or when your disease will affect you at any given moment, I consider my cancer, my finite period of disability. Literally: seven months out of work, collecting that insurance check, and then, a few weeks after finishing treatment, jumping back in and flailing my way through the world of the living, the healthy. Certainly my recovery was long and difficult – and continues to this day – but now, a little over two years after finishing treatment, I am strong and vibrant, healthier and more alive than I have ever been. My energy level is robust, I am pain free. I sleep well. I enjoy eating. I experience the joys of a platonic, well-formed bowel movement virtually every day. (Don’t ever – EVER – under-estimate the value of a good BM.)
Yesterday, I left the house before 7 AM to meet a new friend for a long bike-ride. It was a perfect morning – cool, sunny, no humidity. We set out intending to ride 42 miles; we ended up doing 55. I hadn’t ridden in weeks, since the American Cancer Society event, but I felt comfortable and strong in the saddle. A year’s worth of religious discipline with my running has given me stamina and endurance I never imagined I’d possess – cancer notwithstanding. A new pair of pedals and shoes seems to have all but eliminated the persistent low-back pain I always used to experience on long-rides (unless, of course, it was related to the grapefruit-sized tumor I was toting around me with for all those years.) After those 13 extra miles, my legs were burning a bit – appropriately so – but after a nice tall glass of lemonade and some stretching when I got home, I felt like a million bucks.
At about mile 43 of the ride, my companion asked, “Are you getting tired?”
I laughed a bit as we pushed up a small hill. “Yeah, I’ll admit it.” My odometer read 11 MPH and my legs felt like lead.
“This is about the distance we thought we’d be finishing,” he said. Several detours had added the extra mileage, and we’d agreed to try to stretch things out.
“Yeah, it’s OK,” I replied. “It’s good to push yourself.”
So, in the spirit of pushing myself, this morning I decided to try a run. The day after a long ride has always been a great excuse to rest, but today I felt a certain determination to see what my body was up for. This morning was over-cast, but the air was much thicker and more humid than the day before. Still, at about 8 AM, I laced up and headed out the door.
There was a stiffness in my neck and shoulders from biking, and my body was definitely resisting. But I soldiered on, not minding my sluggish pace. It was a test, just to see what I could handle. I ran a new route, and gauged my mileage along the way – finally coming in just under four miles. As I walked the last two blocks back to the house, soaked in my own sweat, waiting for my heart rate to slow, I smiled at myself. I truly didn’t care how ugly or slow my run was. It was a perfect reminder of why I run – not to be first, or fastest, or to impress people. I do it for myself, so as not to lose sight of the strength that I gained from the battle for my health.
My husband hasn’t been well lately. He’s been fighting a new array of symptoms related to his disease, and it’s been a decidedly rough patch. I watch him struggling with his illness, and I am reminded of the ways in which chemotherapy ravaged my body, and how the violence it did to me seeped into my psyche. I remember the sense of being poisoned.
Those memories are always there, dormant but very much alive, framing my reality. It might seem that by dissecting every minute detail of my life as a survivor, in trying to untangle the threads, the stories and images that fill my mind each day, I am engaging in some kind of morbid preoccupation with illness, with disease. But what I know, and what any survivor will probably tell you, is that the driving force, the motivation for exploring the nuances of life after cancer, is the insatiable desire to live as fully as possible. It is the opposite of morbid. It is jubilant and ecstatic.