Apparently the rules that apply to human house guests also apply to dogs – three nights, maximum. No, I kid. We’ve had a great time with Marley, our dear friends’ Pomapoo, who has been with us since Friday night. Now, though, it’s quiet time: Sunday evening. Time to write, reflect and gear up for the week. But Marley will not relent – he is tearing around the living room, shaking his little teddy bear with the bell inside (hey, at least it’s festive!) Love that pooch like a rock, but I am ready for a little peace and quiet.
It’s not just any Sunday evening, though: tomorrow marks another three-month check-up. Here we go again; I just looked at my entry from my last three-month check-up, and a great deal of what I said then still applies. Happily, though, the anxiety leading up to these appointments continues to diminish.
The truth is, for the last few days, I have felt like a ninja who cannot be stopped. Yesterday afternoon I had a fantastic run and recorded my personal best time for the mile. Today, a rainy, miserable mess, I went to the gym and had one of my now-rare workouts that doesn’t involve running, and came home feeling extraordinarily pumped up. For the post-cancer version of me, there is nothing like physical exertion to remind me that I am deeply, determinedly alive.
Last night, as I ran, I thought about a few things. First, that “Pastime Paradise” is my current favorite running song, and I wish I had a 50-minute extended mash-up to last the length of my average run. But I was also thinking about why I love running so much now, and why it feeds my emotional health the way it does. It has something to do, I think, with relying solely on my own strength and will-power to achieve something.
I have never thought of myself as an athletic person, but before cancer, I loved cycling. I still love my bike, but right now, my heart is with running. With cycling, you are always at the mercy of your equipment. With running, it’s just me. My music, my shoes and the road (or, somewhat less dramatically, the treadmill.) Like fighting cancer, running is, for me, a solitary act that requires me to look inward, and find the strongest and most focussed part of myself.
Put simply, running does not feel good. Lingering peripheral neuropathy makes my feet feel like they are wrapped in cotton, or like my socks are always bunched up at my toes. It’s impossible to know if my shoes fit right, or so it seems. Problems feeling grounded, of knowing that my feet are actually on the ground, touching solid earth, afflicted me for months after finishing chemo, and the sensation of not being able to feel my feet properly caused me tremendous anxiety. Think about it: how can you feel stable – emotionally – when you cannot feel the way your body is connected to the earth?
Medication, acupuncture and time have all helped me overcome the worst part of this affliction. Still, when I run, I am reminded that my feet are not quite right. But it doesn’t stop me. It just makes me want to run harder, and further (and, on rare occasion, faster.)
The emotional bumps in the road earlier this week – triggered by various events and encounters that were totally beyond my control – were unpleasant, to say the least. I left work in tears on Wednesday after one of my five pregnant co-workers came into my office to announce that she’d had an ultrasound that morning and learned she was having a girl. She wasn’t even talking to me, but I just became overwrought. So, rather than smashing my computer screen into a thousand pieces, I quickly packed up my things and left. Never mind that it wasn’t even four o’clock. Some days, mental health takes top priority.
I cried as I stomped up 15th Street and headed to the el, talking to Mike on the phone. I didn’t really care what I looked like. My emotions were all over the place, and it was just too fucking bad for anyone who got in my way.
Once home, I quickly walked the dog, then changed into my running clothes and hit the pavement. It had been an unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon when I headed home, but by the time I was out the door to start my run, the skies had darkened and a ferocious wind had kicked up. After a few blocks, it was like running into a brick wall. My hat almost blew off my head. But I didn’t stop. I ran my usual 4.5 miles, and my pace didn’t even suffer that much. The harder the wind blew, the harder I ran. I was determined not to stop.
Maybe that’s the thing: when I run, when I feel how hard it is, when the wind kicks up, when my feet start to hurt, there’s a natural instinct to cave in. To let the discomfort and the aggravation win. But I always keep going, even when my bowels are acting up or that dull pain in my left knee kicks in. Because each time I do, I get to replay my cancer fight – each tortured moment when I thought I couldn’t go on. And each time I come to the end of a run, and I see that I’ve covered my greatest distance, or recorded my fastest mile, I feel triumphant, and it’s the greatest sensation I know.
Realizing what that run did for me on Wednesday, seeing how it gave me the push I needed to get back on track, psychologically, was a critical moment. The lesson was clear: when I can tune in to the things that give me peace, and a sense of balance and happiness, when I can control my environment to a certain extent, I feel great. Like a ninja. My baseline is pretty fantastic, and it’s not something I take for granted.
Nevertheless, I get tripped up. I have acute, painful and at times very juvenile (or at least it feels to me) reactions to external things, like my pregnant co-worker. Things that trigger some kind of latent anxiety, anger or sadness. Each day, therefore, is a kind of emotional Russian roulette. I can walk out of the house feeling invincible, and if someone says the wrong thing, or if I overhear a certain conversation, it can all come unravelled, fast.
My personal good fortune as a cancer survivor is that my baseline is a place of strength. This weekend, in addition to my great run and getting fired up at the gym, I was able to take good care of crazy Marley (though it was a bit of a challenge trying to dry him off after being out in the rain), trim our Christmas tree and spend quality time with Mike. In those simple things, there is amazing power.
So tomorrow I will start my day with my three-month check-up. Earlier, I had to verbalize my usual irrational fear: I will get bad news. The jig is up. Time for more chemo. Time for all of this hard work, and all of these good feelings to get flushed down the toilet.
But really, just hearing myself speak those words is enough to vanquish most of the anxiety. And actually, now that I think about, it might be wholly appropriate to have a dance party tomorrow morning at 8:30 – or maybe even do some donuts – as I get off the elevator on the third floor at the Jordan Center for Gynecologic Cancer.
Anyone care to join me?