I’ve been reading about a classmate of mine whose daughter has a rare and rather nasty form of cancer. My heart goes out to her, to him, to the rest of her family, their friends, and to everyone else whose lives they touch. I cannot begin to imagine how any of them are coping with that reality.
In the seemingly endless process of dealing with cancer, I have found one of the toughest struggles is making my peace with it. Half my intellect says, “This should not be; there is no logic to it.” The other half says, “It is what it is. Get on with it.” My heart contracts into fetal position in a dusty corner and weeps.
A sumo tournament of conflicting thoughts is thundering inside my head. A teenager with cancer is a tragedy; a middle-aged woman with cancer is not. But where is the tragedy? The middle-aged woman has already lived more than half of her life; she knows what she would have missed. The teenager has barely begun her journey; the future is a mystery no one can know. The middle-aged woman has probably seen tragedy, anguish, desperation in other people’s lives and in her own; with luck, the teenager has not. A teenager is more able to accept the unacceptable, to believe the unbelievable, to see the abnormal as normal. Acceptance may be harder for the middle-aged woman who has lived long enough to be aware of, and dread, some of the bumps and jolts that life will eventually offer. The teenager has the purity of belief that she is immune to the evils of the world, she is safe, indestructible, and all will be well.
You can’t compare the teenager and the middle-aged woman, the lamb and the ewe, the pristine silk stocking with the worn woolen sock. What value does experience have? What value innocence? When do we stop asking questions like that and just get on with it? How can we?
I was coming to the end of my endless radiation treatments when I had my final doctor visit. She said, “As you know, the effects are cumulative. The worst of it will be within the two weeks after treatment ends.”
THWAP! Out of nowhere, another boot hurled itself toward my head.
All along, every doctor I’d talked to said that most people don’t have any reaction at all. If anything, I was supposed to experience nothing more than a mild sunburn. Mild sunburn my Aunt Fanny! I am very pale and love to go to the beach; I know what a sunburn feels like. The day after the final treatment, my armpit looked like someone had left a hot iron on it. And it got worse over the next couple of days, eventually developing as severe burns do, then into a rash on the middle of my chest. The redness progressed sideways, downward and across my chest. I would have had to pull a Rip Van Winkle under a sunlamp to get this kind of burn. Perhaps the doctors meant the type of sunburn you might get on Venus. I’ve heard awful things about the beaches on Venus. Sunscreen SPF 462 is recommended, one factor for each degree Celsius of average surface temperature. Yeah, that must be what they meant.
The silver lining, if you care to see it that way, is that the worst of the burn is on the part of my armpit that is still numb from surgical nerve damage. I look at it, touch it, and know that it should hurt, but it doesn’t. That makes me wonder: where does pain go when you can’t feel it? And what is the purpose of pain that is not felt? If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to see it, does it hurt?
I have a hard time not getting angry at the medical people I’ve dealt with over the past year. The occasional sympathetic nod does not make up for the overall indifference. They either pat my knee and tell me I’m going to die (we’ll let that one go) or they understate the case so much that the reality is a shock. Their attitude makes me think of a quote from Buddhist scriptures: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I’m certainly the one who got burned. But what’s the point in anger? It won’t make the doctors lose any sleep, won’t make my pain any less real.
I still have to believe, as they do, that the treatment will prolong my life. I’ve read that some of the effects of chemotherapy and radiation may never go away completely, but at least I will be alive to experience them. There’s no point in assigning blame, no point in calling any of this good or bad. It just is. I have to make my peace with all of that. If I am lucky and I am strong enough, I can find a way to learn from all of this and move on.
So, I slather myself with Aloe Vera and coconut oil and hope that they will work their magic. And I keep putting one foot in front of the other.