Cancer scattered my best laid plans, and I had to face the fact that our lives are built with paper walls. But even after facing seemingly unsurmountable challenges, I believe there’s still hope.
On Christmas Day 2017, I discovered a lump.
It would take two weeks to hear the phrase that would change our lives forever.
You have cancer.
I am one of the lucky ones still here to celebrate National Cancer Survivor’s Day.
When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream.
I was in an old school – with over-polished hardwood floors and cold, gray concrete walls – running up an endless flight of stairs. Except the stairs seemed bigger than life, slippery and oversized. I would scramble up (as if something was chasing me) and tumble into classrooms full of desks and chairs and people.
Upon my unintended intrusion, these faces and pointing fingers (caricature-esque and terrifying) would be laughing and mocking my inability to get to my feet. I would turn and clamber my way out of the room, only to be met with the over-imposing stairs again.
The scene would repeat until I woke myself up, sweaty with my heart racing and my blankets in a disheveled pile. I would leap up to run into my mother's bedroom, inevitably getting tangled in the bedsheets, tripping and sliding through the doorway.
In an incredibly vulnerable and moving TED talk, Kate Bowler talks about the before and after of her cancer diagnosis and how the before was so much better. The before was a blissful ignorance. Hard work, good intentions, and doing the right things were met with reward. The before had relatively clear margins, where nothing was lost. The before was fearless confidence. Looking back, I am inclined to agree.
I am one of the lucky ones who can look back. At 36, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The past two years have been a wild ride through eight rounds of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and the complicated navigation of the after. On National Cancer Survivor’s Day, I am blessed with the ability to reflect. There are too many people I've met throughout my cancer story who cannot.
My childhood dream is still sharp in my mind, the colors and smells and emotions very real and tangible to me, unlike other dreams I've had that grow fuzzy with consciousness. I can't help but think it is a metaphor. We subject ourselves to an endless race to get somewhere, slipping and sliding, unsure of our footing and facing perceived ridicule and shame. We chase this (American) dream to achieve status, to earn our right to be here (or that elusive classroom), to shake our fist and demand our place at the table.
Cancer scattered my best laid plans, and I had to face the fact that our lives are built with paper walls.
The after, while difficult and uncertain, does provide some perspective. When your body betrays you, you learn to live and love without counting the cost. I am still working on that and identifying the new normal, but I would be remiss to not acknowledge the path to this moment, to this new day, to this life. I have so much gratitude for the scandalous generosity and contagious kindness and goodness of humanity.
We didn't sign up for this. None of us did. Yet here we are, fighting to live a life that looks nothing like it did before cancer.