Sometimes What Comes to Us, We Never Called For

I never called for cancer, but it came anyway. 

It was not gentle. It was more like the Mongol horde invading. 

I thought I was fine one day. The next day I was told I might be very, very sick. 

Hmm, something could be wrong, let us stick these huge needles in you to get some core samples. 

Hmm, something is wrong, let’s do some exploratory surgery, pull out a bunch of lymph nodes just in case, and cut some nerves. You won’t feel all of your arm afterward, but you will feel most of it. 

Hmmm, everything has to go. We will cut it all off, but leave you with some plastic bags of saline water shoved under your chest muscles, which we can inflate as much as you want. Oh, you will no longer be able to use your chest muscles correctly, and your skin could split, but that is just part of it. 

Those stents and drains, well, that is just part of it too. Wear very, very baggy clothes so no one can see you are full of holes and tubes. You can work with your drains in. Just hide them. 
Uh oh, looks like you need chemo as well. The doses are all standard, whether you weigh 100 or 300 pounds. We can’t give you a smaller dose, even if your liver processes as slowly as a turtle. It’s the law. 

Oops, you didn’t react so well, did you? It hit your central nervous system, you walk like someone with cerebral palsy. It may go away. Oh, the skin in your mouth is sloughing off and you cannot eat? Ensure is great. Try it, use a straw. 

You have shooting pain in your toes? That is neuropathy. You are lucky you can feel them at all. And your fingers are fine, be grateful. What to do about it? We don’t know. 
Your hair has fallen out and you are sometimes so weak you need to crawl? It will pass. Probably your hair will grow back. But it may be different hair, like someone else’s hair on your head. Wear a scarf, wear a cap, wear a wig. 

You feel like the healthy person you once were has died, and you are old before your time, and disfigured? Well, you are alive. That is really the best we can do. 

Cancer is Zen boot camp. You spend a lot of time “in the howl,” as Annie Lamott says. You are too sick to plan, and maybe you are going to die, so you learn to live in the moment. Life? You realize you may not have much of it. That poor bag of bones and skin you call your body? You learn that it is fragile and impermanent. Your mind? You learn it fragments and distorts and falls to pieces when things are awful enough. Your work? You can’t do it, so you can’t identify with it. Your roles? Being responsible, being upbeat, being a giver? Pretty much gone. With your drug addled mind, you can’t be trusted to be responsible. Upbeat? When your life feels “live from the Book of Job?” Pretty difficult. A giver? The only thing you have left to give is your gratitude. 

But if it all works, you learn that none of this really matters. You learn that while you will die, now or later, life will go on. If you are lucky, that will bring inconceivable joy. You learn that not all friends are there in tough times, but many are, and one can live buoyed by love, somehow floating on it when otherwise one would sink. You learn to be very, very present.

—Elayne Lansford

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