I have cancer, but cancer does not have me.
This is the mantra I have been telling myself for the past few weeks. Sometimes when I say it, the words sound like a battle cry, readying me to go head to head with this disease; other times it just sounds empty, a string of words to which I can put no real meaning. This is the way it is with most things, however. Some days I am full of vim and vigor, ready to put everything I have into eradicating this “thing” from my body. I feel confident, strong, optimistic, and determined. Other days, I feel helpless and frail, scared and unsure. A little girl who is convinced the boogeyman is hiding under her bed. Except the boogeyman is in my body and turning on the light doesn’t make everything better. And so my feelings go back and forth, like a crazy pendulum over which I have no control.
I am conglomeration of anger and fear, sadness and joy, unworthiness and gratitude, hate and love.
I am angry. I wonder, why do I have this disease? Is it because of my diet? Too many sodas? Too much McDonald’s? Was my DNA created with a genetic code that magically unlocked a mass of abnormal cells when I turned thirty-nine? Why should I be the one stuck with cancer and not someone else? I do triathlons, dammit….I’m healthy! What have I done to warrant not one, but three cancers in six months (melanoma, kidney, rectal), with two of them (kidney, rectal)occurring at the same time? How is this fair? Why can’t I swim, bike, run like I used to? Why is this happening to ME?
And yet…..why not me? Would I prefer that someone else go through what I am having to go through? What if someone can learn from my experience, take comfort in it, find hope in it? What if this is my true calling, to create awareness of this terrible disease and how it can affect ANYONE? What if I have been unknowingly given this cross to bear so that someone else might be spared? What if I can help one person by fighting this fight? What if I refuse to be a cancer victim and instead be a cancer warrior?
I am scared. People tell me how strong I am. I try to believe them, try to convince myself that this is true, but a lot of the time I am petrified. I find myself plunging into moments of extreme panic and I have to talk to myself like I am in a race. Deep breaths. You’ve got this. One step at a time. I am convinced that at some point everyone will realize what a fraud I am and that I am not this strong, fierce woman that they think I am; that instead of finding the Great Oz, they will pull back the curtain and find a tiny little man, or in my case, a weak and timid girl. Sometimes I want to stay in bed, pull the covers over my head, and pretend all of this is just a bad dream.
And yet….I get out of bed each morning. I muster courage because quitting is not an option. I view my cancer as a race, something that can be conquered, something that I can beat into submission, something that I can win. When folks say they admire my bravery, I wonder, what else I am supposed to do? Give up? Lie down and surrender? What choice do I have but to fight? There are people with cancer far worse than mine who haven’t given up, so why should I? I think about them and realize that I will approach this as I do everything else, with bulldogged determination and tenacity. I am a six time Ironman finisher. Last year I ran my fastest marathon coming close to a Boston Marathon qualifying time. I will not be defeated by this disease. I still have Boston to run.
I am sad. It is easy to fall into the depths of depression when you think about chemo and radiation and all the nasty side effects that accompany it. You are pumping deadly toxins into your body in an ironic attempt to survive, so it is understandable that one might feel bummed out. I find myself crying at odd times, over odd things. I crave being alone sometimes just so I can wallow in a pool of self pity. My sadness is so palpable I wish I could disappear, a turtle withdrawing into its shell.
And yet….I find myself experiencing intense happiness in things I had taken for granted in the past. The feel of a hot bath on my skin while I read a good book. The rustling of birds twittering in the leaves. The shadow of my dog walking by my side on our daily walk. The sound of my boyfriend quietly breathing while he sleeps. The warmth of a blanket that a dear friend made just for me. My heart swells with so much joy at times that it feels like it will burst. I see beauty in all things.
I am unworthy. When I was first diagnosed and had to have my kidney removed, the outpouring of people’s kindness was extremely overwhelming. Every day there were cards, flowers, gifts, messages, and emails from family, friends, and even people I didn’t know. I found myself feeling unworthy of such attention and didn’t know how to respond. How can I possibly return all this kindness? Why are people doing this? What if people realize that I’m not really deserving of any of this, that my cancer is some sort of karmic retribution because of something I’ve done or said? What if they realize I’m not the strong, courageous, heroic person they think I am? Won’t they stop once they realize I’m just me? Don’t they realize I don’t deserve their concern, attention, or generosity?
And yet….I have so much to be thankful for. Love fills every crevice of my life. I have the best friends anyone could ever ask for. I have a boyfriend who makes me laugh and smile every day. I have a triathlon team full of teammates who support me even though I cannot currently race, much less train. I have colleagues who have picked up my slack in my absence. I have a family who supports me and stands by me. I have a dog who sleeps at my feet, and cats who purr by my side as I type this. My cup runneth over.
I hate cancer. But I love my life.
I may have cancer, but cancer does not have me.