If the seven stages of grieving are anything like the seven stages of getting spectacularly grim news about your cancer, then I’m right on schedule: I am no longer drowning in despair or frozen in shock, but am awash in the turbulent waters of anger.
This is good because it turns out that the upward climb from the bottom of the abyss is steeper and slipperier than at first it looked, and I was starting to slide back down a bit into the darkness of fear and despair.
But then yesterday I got mad. Figuring out what my next step in fighting this cancer is supposed to be has been incredibly difficult and intimidating and I was feeling frustrated, frightened and unshepherded as I tried to navigate the clinical trial quagmire. And then, just when I was on the verge of crumpling into a heap of hopelessness, my fear and frustration transmogrified into a clear, burning rage. It was like a blinding spotlight aimed squarely at a system that seems ill-equipped to support a person facing this more-desperate-than-average cancer flummox, and at a disease that targets mothers, fathers, best friends, and daughters instead of just taking out monsters like child molesters and corrupt politicians.
To my surprise I found myself smashing my fist down on the kitchen counter. I did this about five times. Then I did it about ten more times. It may have looked a little silly but it sure felt better than collapsing into tears and being overcome with fear and frustration. I suddenly understood why men kick things when they’re mad, especially things they have just stubbed their toes on. The fist-pounding made me feel less vulnerable, somehow stronger. Also a tiny bit cro-magnon. And then it started to hurt, so I considered kicking in some drywall, mentally appraising all the walls in our house for smashibility, and wondering if we had an axe…
Next, I had several very clear premonitions of spending the afternoon with blood-soaked towels tied around my limbs while waiting to get stitched up in emerg. Maybe the axe is not such a good option for me.
That’s when I remembered the “Rage Box” that my friend Karen made me. It is a cardboard box in the garage filled with old chipped cups wrapped in newspaper. The instructions read as follows:
1) Place in area where things that break can be thrown. Preferably somewhere that you won’t have to clean up because who the hell wants to do that?
2) Start to feel the rage… run to box, grab mug, throw against floor, SCREAM!
3) Repeat as often as necessary.
4) Call when you need a refill.
I smashed everything in the box out in our back laneway (but did not scream so as to avoid neighbours calling police.) I smashed some of them twice if they still looked smashable after the first smash. And my god it felt good. I have already requested a refill for the rage box.
Look out cancer, I’ve just discovered rage, and I like it.
So there’s a strange thing that happens when you have cancer: people stop feeling they have the right to complain around you. Friends will sheepishly and abruptly cut themselves off in the middle of soliloquies about whatever’s not going so well in their lives, usually with an apology of the well-of-course-its-nothing-compared-to-what-you’re-dealing-with variety. It’s a bit weird; people get a kind of self-conscious, momentarily horrified expression just as they were really about to let ‘er rip about what’s eating them, and then like a health care reform bill in congress, the subject is suddenly dropped, or changed, or otherwise disposed of.
I don’t mean to imply that this only happens when someone’s complaining to a person with cancer. Who among us (including those of us with cancer) feels that its acceptable to whine and grumble with abandon these days when a cursory glance at the news will tell you how much very worse things could be (whether in Haiti or about 500 other hotspots across the globe.) But the truth is that even in the absence of news-making tragedies, this self-consciousness arises whenever people start to complain around a person with cancer — and I’m of two minds about it.
On the one hand, everybody has problems, and while I think we can all agree that some are “bigger” than others, each of us feels the weight of our own troubles. True, we sometimes get wrapped up in them to the extent that we think things are worse than they actually are. It’s easy to focus on things that aren’t going right. As my Amazing Cancer Shrink likes to point out, the brain is actually designed to focus on the unpleasant stuff (something about survival or whatnot…) It’s natural and legitimate to want to share whatever is weighing on your mind. Also, as my mom’s best friend used to say, “Once you put it out there it’s not bigger than you.” Sometimes just talking about it makes it feel a little lighter, a little less unwieldy.
On the other hand, let’s face it, some people seem to perversely enjoy getting all hyped up in the drama of their troubles, and talking about it becomes kind of a theatrical exercise. In these situations you’re not a listener or an advisor – you’re an audience. This, I confess, I have very little time for. This is when you might catch me rolling my eyes, or puffing out my cheeks – or possibly both, simultaneously, for maximum “I’m barfing on the inside” effect. Hard to say exactly if it’s the performance or the performer that triggers my response, but whenever I’m in this situation something happens to my theory that everyone has the right to feel the weight of their own problems: it flies out the window, along with my patience and tolerance. I feel… insulted? Maybe not insulted. Definitely annoyed. Definitely of the very strong opinion that such people should immediately get over themselves. Which is of course the very same judgment that I believe most people fear when talking to someone with cancer — and which prompts most complainers to cut themselves off mid-soliloquy in the first place.
The thing is, this isn’t just the cancer talking; I’ve always felt this way. Ask my parents, both of whom have gone through a phase or two when they were perhaps ever so slightly guilty of a little too much drama for my liking. Ask my friends, most of whom will tell you my love can be sometimes be of the tough (and eye-rolling) variety. Ask Georgia, who at three-and-a-half has already had several occasions to shout at me that her name is not “Hollywood!”
So, am I saying that the paranoia about having the “right” to complain that some people feel around a person with cancer is justified? Am I in fact intolerant if I get irritated by a person’s self-pity? Is it, moreover, a sign of my own self-absorption that I don’t make time for the friend who can’t stop carping on about his nasty boss or the woman who’s every conversation returns to the subject of her inability to find the right guy?
Actually, no. I think I just have a short fuse with drama queens (of either gender.) Always have. My policy is Ice Queens, Drag Queens, Dairy Queens – ok. Drama Queens, no.
Because everyone has problems, and I truly don’t mind hearing about them – within reason. My impatience with the drama doesn’t stem from having cancer, honest. It’s not because I think I have it worse — if anything it’s just the opposite. I really believe my life is better than most. Yes, better. In spite of cancer, I genuinely believe my life is a happy one – or happier than the average at any rate, judging from the deafening howl of misery out there. I feel very much aware of my own good fortune: my happiness in my marriage, friendships, and family relationships alone is a more or less constant reminder of how good I’ve got it. Let’s not paint too rosy a picture — I am also acutely aware of my own misfortunes — but in the big picture, being surrounded by love and support and amazing, inspiring people, (not to mention being madly in love with your husband) is a pretty good place to net out, day after day. So, since I’m managing to mostly hold it together over here all I’m saying is, I don’t really want anyone killing my buzz with a song and dance, especially if a talk or a hug can accomplish more.
As for the Drama Queens, you just go ahead and cry yourself a river if you’ve got the blues. Life is full of troubles and we all have our reasons to be less than just perfectly content every once in a while. Believe me, I’m not advocating any kind of Stepfordian complacency or stoic WASPy forbearance. When you feel the weight of your worries, better to share it than to let it crush you. I’m just saying: if you’re going to hit the stage let me exit the auditorium first, please. You don’t want me in the audience anyway – I’ll just be throwing you off your show with all my huffing and puffing & eye-rolling, and making of moon-eyes at my husband.
It was a long, long day at the hospital yesterday and I am totally knackered. I came home and rested a bit and then my husband and Georgia stormed the premises, but thank god Georgia’s godmother came over too, to help wrangle the Whirlwind. The Whirlwind was actually in quite the difficult mood – she was certainly not going to be nominated for any behavioural awards last night – and that’s enough to wear you out on any day, let alone one that involved seven hours at the hospital. In fact, we’re pretty sure last night put the godmother’s child-bearing plans back by at least six months…
Nonetheless we managed; we made it through dinner and bedtime without too much additional drama. Very shortly after Georgia was tucked in for the night, I too said good night and headed up to bed. As I was climbing the stairs I had one of those thoughts – the kind that have the power to bring you right down and leave you smack in the middle of darkness and devastation if you let them: “When did this become my life? How did I get here — to this life full of cancer and exhaustion and sickness and stress — from that charmed, beautiful life full of privilege and blessings…?”
This is known as a Pity Party. Or as the start of one. It can spiral right out of control, leading to tears and trauma. Orrrr, you can snuff it out like an offensively over-scented votive candle.
It’s not that it’s not all true: I did lead an extraordinarily happy and blessed life — not one totally devoid of challenges and pain, but pretty darn good all around, pretty much right up until I got hit with the cancer stick. Yet despite appearances, I kind of think my life continues to be incredibly good. I may not be the luckiest person alive, but I have a really good life. And it turns out that some rather previously-unimaginable blessings have come from this experience of having cancer. (For more on this, you can refer to earlier posts questioning the idea of cancer as a “gift.” I’ll save you the suspense: I don’t believe for a second that cancer in itself is a gift, but it does bring with it some undeniable silver linings.)
Anyway, I had just reached the top of the stairs when another voice interrupted the Pity Party Planner’s escalating lament, “When did my beautiful life turn into this constant, unending battle…blah blah blah…” with a firm “Well, it may not look as rose-coloured as once it did, but it is still your life. And it’s actually not a bad one. Have you seen Haiti lately? How’d you like to pull your child out of the rubble? Get a grip. You’ve got cancer and you have to live with it. Live being the operative word.”
It can be such a ball-buster, that other voice of mine. But it certainly did the trick. Snapped me right out of my downward-spiraling, woe-is-me mood. By the time I was brushing my teeth, I was thinking back at our warm, familial evening and the love and laughter that flowed so easily in and around the eddies and crests of Georgia’s hooliganism; at our delicious dinner of take-out Japanese food in our great house, and the conversations and connections on a million levels between we three old friends; even at Georgia’s absolute certainty of her rightful place at the centre of the universe. Just before switching off the bathroom light I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I had a half-smile on my face — I knew it was true: my life is still blessed. A bit chaotic, battle-scarred, and full of dramatic ups and downs, but definitely still blessed, at least by my measure.
Pity Party postponed. That other party, the celebration? Definitely still on.
Boy, that was a long nap.
I have been AWOL from the blogosphere and I apologize. I also offer my warmest thanks for all the notes & comments & check-ins & where-the-heck-are-yous. I was off hosting a vegan yoga seminar at which I instructed participants in the art of blowing it out their third eye.
We escaped to my Aunt’s big, rambling house in the “crunchyside,” as Georgia calls it. The weather was beautiful and there’s a big beach nearby, and it was just the sunny, beachy, relaxed family time that we needed. I even managed to walk 11K one day to get ready for next weekend’s big 60K Weekend to End Breast Cancer walk.
After the shock of Wednesday’s news, I actually found myself feeling a deep, centred sense of calm on Thursday (and I wasn’t even sedated at the time.) For some reason I was filled with the conviction that I am going to be fine. I know that nothing is “fine” right now, but I believe it all will be eventually, and that I’m going to be ok. It was bizarre, but I went with it.
That feeling more or less carried me right through the weekend, until yesterday when I completely lost the whole calm, centred thing and morphed into a roiling receptacle of anxiety and fear. It started because after a night of coughing I realized that an annoying little dry cough I’ve had for the last few weeks has bloomed into a constant and not-so little dry cough, sending me into paroxysms of cancer-panic: Is this the handiwork of the evil lung-spots?? Are they spreading so rapidly that they will soon overtake my lungs completely? Oh my god, I am going to die!!
You know the drill. Or can probably imagine it. It’s not a good drill.
Luckily today I saw my cancer shrink, the Amazing Dr. Hunter, who made short work of my cancer-panic and talked me through a few other things besides. And as I biked home from the hospital I could feel the calm and the conviction returning. (Yes, feeling calm and centred even while biking home in Toronto traffic. He’s that good.)
I guess this is how it will go: having metastasized cancer will be like a particularly tumultuous and stupid relationship where I will oscillate between feeling confident, courageous and in control and becoming a total blubbering, freaked-out basket-case.
And then I will dump cancer’s ass and move on with my life.
Today, I went back to the oncology ward for another round of Herceptin, mentally checking off my 8th of 17 Herceptin treatments (only 9 more to go!) Walking back into the chemo rooms, I realized that before my little escape to California to stay with my dad, I was running out of fight. After so many months of treatment, I had started spiraling into depression. But I’ve returned feeling stronger and I can once again look at the Herceptin treatments as one of medicine’s little miracles – one of my many weapons against this stupid disease.
Of course before being allowed Herceptin today, I had to pass another heart test, or “MUGA,” on Tuesday. They do these MUGAs every few months because Herceptin can be hard on your heart, and it’s not like you need to contend with any additional major health problems when you’re wrangling cancer.
I think of those old kung-fu movies, where the hero is surrounded by a circle of villains who rather obligingly wait their turn to attack, getting knocked on their keisters one by one. Wait your turn, heart problems, I’m still busy kicking cancer’s butt. The hero never focuses on the entire gang of villains edging ever-closer. He always keeps them in his periphery in case they get sneaky, yes – but his martial arts training has taught him to focus on one bad guy at a time. (Never mind that in the movies they always wait their turn anyway.)
So it is with breast cancer sometimes. There are so many questions and fears encircling you, so many villainous things to contend with: What will the test results say? How bad will the side-effects be? When will my hair fall out? Has the tumour shrunk? Was the surgery successful? And, of course, the biggest, meanest, most villainous question of all: will I survive??
Today, sitting there hooked up to my IV, surrounded by all the other women in various stages of their treatment, I was reminded that there are a LOT of us fighting this fight. There is Patricia, who in spite of enduring more than a year of extremely intensive chemo is always one of the friendliest, most cheerful people in the chemo rooms. She told me today that they’re finally starting to see some of the tumours shrink. There is Carol, my friend’s mom, who is holding her breath til Monday when she finds out if the lumpectomy was successful or if they will have to do a mastectomy. And as always there are new faces; today I saw a woman having her first round of chemo, looking scared and bewildered and brave all at once.
There are so many of us. I can’t believe how many of us there are, each of us swarmed by all the questions and implications of our unique fight with cancer. It’s overwhelming sometimes. But I really do believe most of us are going to beat it. Most of us are winning. We have to win. We’re the kung-fu heroes, and we’re tired, and maybe it feels like there are too many villains encircling us, but we kung-fu fighters never give up. That’s the one thing we can’t do. We have to keep fighting: Hi-eee-yah! One karate chop at a time.