Journey With Cancer – The First Hello
Written 45 days after diagnosis (June 2010) and my first formal communication to friends and supporters. Adapted for broader readership in 2012.
April 20th, 2010 at 6 pm, I park on the side of an Oregon highway waiting for a return call from a doctor. It is gray. I learn that I have “advanced cancer” in a brief call. 36 hours later that diagnosis is refined to Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. There is no Stage V.
In the diagnostic roller coaster leading up to this call I have bartered endlessly, assuring myself of how accepting I could be of any diagnosis but cancer. Congestive heart failure, sure. Rheumatoid arthritis, easy. A fungal infection with a 25% risk of death, absolutely. I share my bargaining chits during various emergency consults where anonymous healers attempt to figure out why the lung of a healthy fit woman has collapsed. My negotiations fail to amuse a single doctor.
April 22, 2010: it is Earth Day and two days after that initial call. It’s also day three of the oil gusher in the Gulf; it’s the day my dearly departed little brother would have turned 43; and it is the day I am handed my formal death sentence. Any show of control collapses. I have drawn the shortest straw in my diagnostic bundle. My life as I had constructed it comes to a close. Crash, boom! Any illusion of free will has been replaced by the will to live.
It is 45 days later now. I have been coming to terms with my short straw. I see my job as using acceptance to construct a new life, however brief. In recent weeks I try on many faces including wise, gracious, funny and sad but I am never as genuinely sad as when I walk out of my Ovarian Cancer Support Group meetings. It is then I feel in the deepest pit of my stomach the very imminent reality of my death. God damn.
Feeling my death is so raw, unlike anything I have felt before. Thinking about my death stays a mere exercise of intellect – it is a removed and obvious truth that I can surely handle. Feeling death is so incredibly sloppy. Slow tears trickle out as I move towards a very different type of acceptance and grief. There is nothing for me to give permission to in this experience. Death is coming for me and it could be coming fast. In allowing myself to feel the reality of death, my stomach lurches endlessly, radiating out in cold, sharp spasms. It is as though I’m enduring a constant replay of the dream-fall when sleeping – the one where the stomach lurches and you are shocked awake at just the point you realize you will hit bottom. But this is real and there is no dream to awaken from. This is a Stage IV Ovarian Cancer diagnosis when you have suspended thinking and grasped Truth.
I am re-born in this free fall. I am re-born to the council of my medical team – “You must start living as if the next three months are your last. And when you are still alive at the close, make a new three month plan.” This is living with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. It is a sneaky diagnosis that will allow me to look and feel great as the cancer makes its own decisions on longevity. It will decide which three months are my last. We will all find out together as the final three months dawn.
I believe I can do this. I will learn to live in three-month intervals. I will hope and dream and build in smaller allocations of time. But am I going to do this in my heart or in my head? In my head it is a mere storyline I can make interesting, wise and abstract. In my heart it is a constant tremor radiating from my stomach as I fall to my death several times a day or maybe several times an hour. I am offered drugs to derail the anxiety as I fall, but what do I lose if I take the edge off? And, if I don’t take the edge off, how will I get anything done or feel any joy or feel anything other than desperation?
45 days in to my new reality and I am bald. My signature long blond hair is gone. Catching a glance in a mirror is jarring, demoralizing. Why this overt humiliation now?
My house is also sick. It has been diagnosed with mold and so I am barred from entering because mold could kill me – an irony I try not to dwell on. My living quarters are reduced to a single room generously loaned by dear friends as they shower me with love, laughter and attention. My middle class American life has been whittled down to what will fit in a few bins. The bins taunt me with lessons of detachment. Must everything now be about preparing me to leave this world?
I have started to vanish. I can sense colleagues and friends, overwhelmed with the demands of their own lives, cutting me out of the day-to-day flow of work-based communication, so as “not to derail me from healing”. I crave updates about everything that formerly was my life. It’s been a mere 45 days and my erasure from the news of the day is underway. Does no one else see the irony of not distracting me from getting well? So many ironies at Stage IV.
There is so much more to acknowledge, like the bundles of love sent my way through cards, notes in the virtual guestbook, food and good reading material. As I free fall, kindness envelops me and cushions such a scary moment with light and possibilities. As we all struggle to find our best place in this very real drama please don’t fear making mistakes. Cancer is a mistake. Reaching out to me will never be a mistake.
I am lonely and scared. I am like a little Who from Horton Hears a Who — hanging on a thistle screaming out, “I am here, I am here, I am here.” Please hear me, love me and help me live this last phase of life as completely as possible. Just don’t rush my disappearance. Please.
Oregon • June 10, 2010
I’m a kickass community organizer dedicated to the notion that small town Americana is filled with justice seeking souls that deserve support as well as have the power to bridge the false cultural divides of our times.
– Marcy Westerling