Little Leaps, Big Bounds


Cancer moves exponentially, starting slow as invisible mutated cells find homes (unlike in functional bodies where they are peed out into oblivion) and then the mass or masses take off like that hopeful snow shape in a palm


that suddenly emerges as an obvious ball worthy of throwing or further building towards a snowman’s torso.images-1images-3

My cancer went from delicate growth (September/October) to a small bound (today). The news comes on the heels of more daunting recoveries from my most recent treatments. My husband scurried from one futile effort to the next to bring me comfort this last cycle, his only reward my teary confession that I wasn’t sure I could continue this path. It felt too hard and, in fact, stupid.

Yesterday and today I feel good (yahoo!) but the news is the cancer is feeling good as well. It’s on the move.

Who to call? What to do? I rollback over my choices, as my personal doubts mount, and recall, “Oh yes, I had to play my big card back in June when the cancer surged so fast.” But I played that big card. The cancer continues to play its hand. My hand holds few backups outside of hoping that the waiting line for UPenn moves fast and that I qualify for a trial slot sooner rather than later (or never).

Uh Oh


Uh Oh!

Uh Oh!

Last week, I wept at the thought of enduring the back-to-back-to-back-to-back chemo days required by the UPenn protocol – HOW COULD I FACE THAT after these unrelenting five months of aggressive treatments. Today I want to book my flight to Phillly, elbow my sisters off the line and demand the start.

What odd creatures we humans are; or is it bigger than humans this quest to live?

I recall my last dog, Tony, in significant decline as he aged. Was he 16, 18? I didn’t know but he and I partnered in life for 15 adventurous, full years. Then he was deaf, dumb and blind, increasingly incontinent and having micro strokes. His rapid decline timed poorly with my terminal diagnosis. I wasn’t feeling well positioned to pull the plug. I decided as long as his tail wagged, his life was worth living. His tail wagged.

The vet gave me pills a year prior when she diagnosed the micro-strokes and a litany of other poor health omens. She inferred that these could be given for pain management (he wasn’t showing pain) or, hint-hint, to bring things to a close. Oh! My! In July of 2012 strokes left him barely able to walk beyond small circles. He stopped eating or drinking. I gave him every form of permission possible to die and started the pills. He lived. I increased the dosing and another day passed. This was like some very bad, slow moving skit. One night I gave him all the remaining pills, said my deepest levels of goodbyes only to awaken to a living dog and a husband declaring, “we are going to the vet now.”

The vet euthanized Tony – outside, on a vast lawn, on a glorious day. Tony, to the end, resisted. The vet said this was typical of dogs. Now I wonder about me.

Diem Brown was one more reality star I would never have encountered if she wasn’t plagued by recurrent ovarian cancer in the years prior to her death this past weekend at age 32. Two things struck me, again. One, how vibrant she looked mere weeks before dying despite surgeries beyond imagination. We want the dying to give us the courtesy of looking the part. It is the only way we, the outsiders, conceive of what is going to happen next. And then her last tweet, defiant, forward looking despite the cancer having engulfed her body as she swears,  “My doctors are seemingly giving up but I won’t & can’t rollover. Whatever option I have to LIVE I’m grabbing!”

I see this in my peers, regardless of age – at 82 and 32 – I see this commitment to life at all costs. And then there are the elegant exceptions. It’s a very big gray zone. Fighting vs. caving vs. bowing. Life is indeed a balancing act and the guidebooks rather vague.

“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment.” Thích Nht Hnh



About marcy westerling

I am a long time community organizer with a passion for justice and founded the Rural Organizing Project in 1992. Derailed by a Stage IV Ovarian Cancer diagnosis in spring 2010, I have stayed in treatment since then. I am learning how to embrace livingly dying and hope that by starting a Phase One immunology clinical trial at UPenn in spring of 2013 I will have more time to find the sweet spots of thriving while terminally ill.

30 responses »

  1. Sending you love, remembering Tony with a big grin, giving you permission (mine you don’t need), but hoping beyond hope that I see you during our Thanksgiving time. so much love for you and Mike. Doodle

  2. Deciding to keep going to deciding to give up and let things take their course. It is indeed a hard choice, but one each of us living with cancer has to make. I only hope I know the time when it comes. I have suffered setbacks recently, but I’m not ready to stop treatment yet. The human spirit and will are indomitable. Prayers and blessings, Marcy.

  3. Your courage, resourcefulness and lucidity have always touched me and so many others – year after year. Nothings changed. You are you, the bright glowing soul who cares so deeply, knows so much, and loves with all your heart. You inspire. You chart the way. Nothings changed. I don’t understand why struggle exists either. Perhaps enlightenment is the absence of struggle. I don’t know. Thank you for sharing. Love to you Marcy.

  4. Hi Marcy,
    I hope you don’t mind that I share your emails with my family (my sisters and my adult children) plus a friend who has had cancer. You have always amazed me and still do amaze me.
    In your message, you shared with us about you and your pet. I have just finished a book ‘written from a dog’s perspective on his life’.. I will email you later with the title of the book as I left it at my daughter’s house….my memory STINKS…like here’s a fun book to read but I cannot remember the title of it. I have been in a book group for many years (all women about the same age-give or take 10 years) but ask me “What have your read through the years”….duh….big blank again!
    Love & kisses to you and family…………

  5. Warm thoughts, passionate prayers, and big virtual hugs always surrounding you dear friend! As decisions must be made, may you find a deep peace in your choices.

  6. Love to you, Marcy! Wishing you strength and courage and all the support in the world as you traverse this path in the unknown. OXO

  7. Marcy, I don’t know you but I have been moved by your journey and wish the best for you. I offer my thoughts from the perspective of having worked as an RN on Phase I oncology clinical trials (I assume that is what you are trying to get into at Penn). I have also a lot of experience as a hospice RN so I’ve cared for folks who chose to focus on comfort care and for folks who wanted every conceivable treatment if there was a shred of hope that it would extend their life.

    As you know so well, there is no RIGHT answer; only the answer that makes sense for you at this time in your life. My suggestion is to imagine that you know the number of days left in life…37, 67, 237…the number is not important but what is important is how you want to spend those days. If you knew you had the proverbial six months to live, do you want to spent it getting back to back chemo? Perhaps so. I’ve had patients tell me they were okay with dying in the chemo chair if it meant that they did everything they could. Other patients selected hospice to maximize comfort and to avoid treatment side effects knowing it might cost them days or weeks of life. It is a heartbreaking choice. In the end, cancer may win but you can still choose how to spend the days of your life.
    I wish healing, peace, light and clarity for you….Barbara

  8. One can always throw in the towel, but that is a last resort. Fight, fight, fight. And when you are down, crawl back up and fight for just a little more time. Envision the trial working and getting more time! It is worth it. From one fighter to another, my prayers are with you and there are lots of cheerleaders in your corner!

  9. You continue to persevere with with the courage and dignity you’ve always shown, and with the same determination and amazing good humor. I am so honored to be your friend. xxx

  10. Your way with words always amazes. If only you could write away your cancer. Two of my friends who died of cancer really looked like they were; another not so much. No one can really know when the time is right. Your story of Tony reminded me of when we decided to put Peaches down. Dave had convinced me it was “so easy,” but like Tony, Peaches fought the injection and despite her deteriorated state, she wasn’t ready to go. When you are ready, you will know. Whatever choice you make, all of your friends who love you will support you.

  11. When I read Eric Canon’s reply, I thought Yes! Marcy inspires. Marcy charts the way. I hope for the best, will do what I can for you, knowing that I can’t give you or do for you what you want the most.
    I love you Marcy for who you are and what you’ve given to all of us.

  12. However, whenever, whatever you choose, I know you to be a capably gracious woman…may we be as capable and gracious walking alongside you – all the way. With love – Joni

  13. Marcy, thanks for continuing to write. Your messages, one more message, lets us know you still have the spark and drive to not only peruse more treatment but to let the world know you still care about your plight, your husband and all the rest. As for why humans (or your dog) avoid giving up we may never know. I think many people get calmer when they know the end is near. I’m hoping for me that becomes real bliss, getting away from the struggle, decision making, constant pain along with concern and sadness about leaving others behind.

  14. Remembering Tony scampering around various churches and other places not necessarily receptive to dogs, but getting by with it because of his bright spirit! Wishing you fresh reserves of the grace and courage with which you live!

  15. Your spirit and wisdom never cease to amaze me–and now this. Your writing is masterful and inspiring. “Fighting vs. caving vs. bowing. Life is indeed a balancing act and the guidebooks rather vague.” All of us on this bus of life–never knowing which stop will be ours. You have shared your trip with so many who are grateful for the glimpses of the hard journey that your ticket(or hand of cards) has meant. Prayers for you continue and are being offered by so many of your friends–and strangers! Blessings to you & Mike, dear one.

  16. It seems this cancer experience involves losing one’s self and finding one’s self over and over again.

    I am one who’s never fought, usually bowed, sought presence and acceptance, yet outlived my cancer prognoses by 1, 10, 20 years.

    At a younger age I would have claimed that animal life force as my own, a force of choice and will that surged through me.

    So many years into this experience/experiment, it seems more subtle, less personal, yet strong beyond belief.

    Reflecting on all that it takes to create and sustain even a single human life, it’s amazing that any of us exist. Our continued existence is awe inspiring, worthy of weeping. It’s truly a gift, not a given. It’s ours to hold for the short instant of a life span, then release into the greater life-death-life force.

    Marcy, I know what you want, more life, and that you’ll do whatever it takes because your tail keeps wagging even in the midst of brutal treatment and disease progression. This is so very beautiful. A reflection of you and the life force surging through you. I bow to you, Marcy.

    Each of us approaches livingly dying in our unique manner.

    Yours is beautiful.

    I trust you to grow to include it all.

    A glorious rose gold sunrise out my bedroom window. Blessings through the heavens to you!

    You are in my loving, healing meditations,

  17. chronic illness or terminal illness, I shed tears for our ongoing journey of courage, persistence, and compassion. May all your past work in social justice be your own journey now!

  18. Marcy,

    In my online support group someone just posted some information about cancer treatment being done in Bogata, Colombia using 3-Bromopyruvate and Salinomycin. Apparently they have had good results in end stage cancer patients using this combo, but it isn’t being tested in the United States because of some patent dispute. Here’s the link:

  19. I am terribly sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I’m also terribly sorry for the loss of your dog.

    It is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for commenting on my post. I will be praying for you throughout your journey.

  20. You write beautifully and movingly about your struggles with cancer and when to live and when to let go. The juxtaposition of your story with that of your sick dog really drove your points home. I will follow you along on your journey as a new subscriber.

  21. I am glad for you that your next step is so clearly focused. I hope you get in the trial soon. For me the chemo choice, when it comes, will be very tricky. I’m very concerned about quality of life. As you say, I don’t want to miss the turnoff.

  22. Everything your write is so poignant and beautiful. I love you very much Marcy. Barbara sends big hugs and big hopes as well.

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