Reeling with Cancer

A funny thing happened on the way to the recording studio last week: I was heading there to record the chapter in my memoir, Pluck, in which my mother dies of breast cancer, when my phone rang and my doctor told me that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer – bilateral breast cancer, at that.

My first instinct was to scream: “Nooo, Mom – too close, too close.” Of course, I crumpled instead.

We are born and live our lives with one foot in order, the other in chaos. When the proverbial rug is ripped out from beneath our feet, we are thrown fully into chaos.

I walked the rest of the distance to the studio bent over in shock. Was it even possible to have two separate cancers growing simultaneously, one in each breast?

The fear was palpable. It tasted like zinc in my mouth. It felt like bleeding ulcers in my stomach. It felt as though I’d stumbled into another world I hadn’t known was there – the world of mortality.

This was particularly astonishing, given the tragedies of premature deaths in my family, and the reminders they served as: your time is coming too, everyone’s time is coming….

What we know in theory does not prepare us for real life. Until that doctor touched a cold finger onto my spine and said, “Donna, get in the line-up,” that mortal queue, with its inevitable destination, felt a thousand light years away. It matters not that I may live another five, or 10, or 20 years; it is the soul that feels, not the mind, and I felt my mortality for the first time in that moment.

The irony is that I’ve been expecting – waiting – for this breast cancer diagnosis ever since my mother’s passing 23 years ago. Since then, my sister has been diagnosed with it, as has my mother’s sister, plus an aunt, cousin and uncle on my father’s side of the family.

“Hey,” I’ve lightly, even jovially, joked a thousand times, “if I feel a lump tomorrow, it means I’ve got, for sure, another five years; grateful I am for all the blessings thus far, and rally around, my darlings, Mama’s gonna show you how to sally forth with grace.”

So bloody rehearsed was I in thinking this thought that I even believed it: That I would calmly accept the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. Instead, the reality was that I grappled through the same stages of shock, anger, bargaining and depression as most everyone else does. Whether this sequence happens in order is up for debate, but it sure as heck played itself out in similar fashion within me.

And grateful I am for the handrails left behind by those who travelled before me. If there’s one thing we mortals need, it is a semblance of familiarity and guidance through frightening terrain. And no matter how versed we are about “the journey,” it is only when we trek that path ourselves can we truly and actually know it.

I declined the bargaining stage, however. I’d just finished reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, about a prisoner labour camp during Stalin’s reign of terror. How could I fathom bargaining with God for two useless tits when millions have screamed for mercy against torture and mutilations, receiving little more for their prayers than a continuing heartbeat to withstand yet another literally torturous day?

No. It is always a one-sided negotiation: God doesn’t bargain, mortals do. Every time we do our healthy walks and eat our omega essential oils for breakfast, we’re already bargaining for tomorrow’s health, with no leverage and no promise that we’re doing the right thing.

Which is why I skipped bargaining and went directly into anger. Anger that I didn’t get what I wanted. Anger that I denied myself that glass of wine every night; denied myself that second fistful of cookies; denied myself the pleasure of licking the salt and grease from the inside of the little paper bag containing my once-a-month-treat of McDonald’s French fries.

Sadness is the stage that took me by surprise. Standing on my deck a few mornings after the initial diagnosis, I was caught off-guard by the white-spined birch tree growing alongside it, the wind rustling through its foliage. It looked so dear, yet aloof – separate from me.

As I gazed on this grandeur from munificent Earth, a rush of sadness permeated me. I realized what I’ve always known, and yet never felt: I won’t always be here. That I am and was always just passing through.

I sat and stared at that tree till its branches stilled, then spoke into its silence: I can predict when each of your leaves will wither and fall to the ground, and then bloom again into spring.

Others speak into my silence now, writing my innermost thoughts and reactions, and dividing me into the various stages of reactions.

Am I, too, so predictable?

Yes. Just not to me.

Only when we are greeted by the pure unknown of our own mortality do we meet our true selves. Stumbling through darkness collapses the feeble façades we oftentimes unknowingly erect around ourselves, leaving only that which is strengthened with truth. And it is there, standing bared to ourselves in those moments of our greatest vulnerability, that we come face to face with the Divine Spark that I believe is inherent in all of us. Once evoked, that Spark graces our steps with courage, strength and whatever it takes to help us through the chaos.

I am proud that I didn’t flounder in shock and fear for too long. And I was relieved to finally pass through the sadness, which is the prelude to acceptance. Once there, anything is possible. So many parts of us are freed up when anger, fear and sadness fade that there is room for those little surges of joy again – those uplifts we sometimes feel when absorbed in something true and good.

The difference for me is that those surges are more anchored into today than tomorrow. The idea of tomorrow remains a little frightening. But today, I am absorbed with empowering myself with the growing knowledge that comes from interacting with my new reality: working and chewing it down from the unknowable into the knowable, where even the extraordinary becomes ordinary. Or, in the words of the mystics: transcending the chaos, by taming it into order.

That’s a whole lotta work. But, yes, my friends, there is life after cancer.

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