It usually makes sense to start a story at the beginning but as of late, my focus has been more off than usual so I think the best thing to do is start with ‘right now’. Right now is what drove me to sit at the keyboard to type in a manic panic of expressionless frustration. Right now, that same frustration makes me feel like a brat for even complaining. And given this past year, and the fact that I’m still alive, right now, I consider myself lucky. And I do. Really I do.
Then, what’s the problem?
As of late, life’s been a bit challenging. I’m standing here (alive) and yet, standing here, sitting out, watching other people’s bodies move in a way that I can’t, just yet… The key word here is just. I mean, I know that this isn’t forever. Nothing is forever, and maybe, that’s the point. Nothing is forever, so we should seize everything since we are here. And if we can’t seize it like our bodies once allowed, then maybe, we take that as an opportunity to seize something else – including sitting out. Even so, my insides are playing tug of war with something that wants to come out. It is more accurate to even say it needs to come out. I feel this need growing more impatient as each second passes. So what is it exactly? While I thought its release needed to happen in the form of climbing or physical exertion, maybe, just maybe, its release can be found another way. I’ve been thinking that perhaps, I keep things bundled in too tightly. And when we keep things bundled-in too tightly, whether we like it or not, these things work to find their own way out, either unwillingly through sickness or willingly through sharing. It just might be that the thing that I’m bundling-in needs to come out in some sort of sharing fashion. As a friend recently asked, “What’s the point of having an experience, if we don’t share it with even a few people?” At that point, I didn’t tell many people what I’m about to tell you. I didn’t want to be judged, pitied, nor asked questions that I didn’t know the answers to. And I especially didn’t want to make people afraid of me.
Much has passed as of late so I’ll just get to the point. I am 100% cancer free. Never thought I’d have to say those two words ‘I’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence but there you go. I didn’t believe my doctor when she first told me. The whole thing was too surreal, like part of a bad dream that I somehow found myself in. As she spoke, I pinched myself hard. With a sinking feeling weighing heavily in my gut, I asked, “Are you sure? They’re not just pre-with a small-c-cells kinda thing?” I could not say the big C-word. That would be like admitting reality. Besides the obvious questions related to seriousness and longevity that I preferred to avoid, I didn’t know what to say. How was I supposed to react? This was too surreal for any sort of understanding. Besides, her words were vague. I could sense her uncomfortableness weighing in. The few questions I managed seemed to breach the limits of her family doctor knowledge. I’d have to wait for the specialist, she said. It would be two long months of uncertainty before I could have any sort of confidence that I might be ok.
As she spoke, my thoughts fell to Cedar. My 15 year old daughter whom I raised on a solo-mission, needed me just as much as I needed her. Her future, a time and place that I always imagined myself a part of, blinked before my eyes. I thought about the one who just returned to my life. So many years of love interrupted, and now god damn it, a clump of bad cells had the potential to take us down from the inside out. I thought about my scattered family and friends who live in different parts of the globe with whom distance, usually, felt irrelevant. How I craved their presence. I thought about my work and the climbing that nudged me towards dreams maybe unattainable but who cares, the whole point was to try. And I thought about the last two years spent hunched over my desk, sacrificing my climbing in order to finish a major in political science so I could become better equipped to fight the no-camping bylaw that kept me awake at night. Graduating with distinction seemed so pointless amidst my imagined gravestone and the state of the world, which to me at least, seemed on the brink of collapse on so many levels. Maybe it’s ok if there was one less human, one less consumer. Still, my work felt undone. It felt more like it had just begun. The timing of this uninvited guest was impeccable.
I usually keep my phone ringer off as I hate answering the phone. But in the first month of my diagnosis, I missed so many phone calls from various doctor offices that I eventually succumbed to leaving the volume on. Playing phone tag with receptionists only to await their rehearsed speeches that they must say to every new cancer patient isn’t appealing. The ‘what to do, what to expect, what to do after’… For example, did you know that after having a PET scan, you aren’t allowed to be near children or pregnant women because the radioactive isotopes that they inject into your bloodstream might bounce from your body to their developing cells? Needless to say, Cedar and I kept our space that night.
Whenever the cancer place called, my insides twisted into a heavy convoluted knot. These calls were reminding me not of upcoming appointments, but of the fragility of life. What was important to me? Love was important. Love of people, land, place, life… Yet bureaucratic things awaited. For starters, I didn’t have a will. Bureaucratic shit seemed so far off, so utterly unimportant. Fuck it. I wanted to feel sharp rocks dig into my skin and sit amidst the trees and breathe fresh air like it was my last. I needed to surround myself with people I loved. Most of all, I needed to have Cedar’s back. And that included, writing a will.
Two months after the diagnosis the two Andreas sat in front of me. They told me I could call them that. It was easier than “Doctor”, more personable somehow, even though we had just met. Andrea One sat square in front of me making escaping the situation impossible. Staring me straight in the eyes, she said, “As far as we know, the tumor is contained. This means that the best course of treatment for this type of cancer is surgery. What we are recommending is called a “radical” hysterectomy. While a hysterectomy is a major surgery, a radical hysterectomy is best described as a major, major, surgery”. And so long as they “got it all”, there would be no more treatment. As she proceeded to describe the slice and dice procedure, my thoughts fell to the word radical. I wondered what genius had the idea of putting the word “radical” in front of a word that is already, so stripping.
Fast forward 5 months.
My denial came to the surface when they asked me to sit in the chair to eat my breakfast. Sitting up took strength and skill that I didn’t have, so the strong arms of a nurse guided me. Upon rising, an invisible wave of sadness for what they had taken beyond the cancer stirred within. It was subtle but powerful, like a wobbly realization. I could keep my hair but lose my fertility.
I focused on the tray in front of me in order to ‘not start’, but it was too late. My eyes were brewing with an unstoppable force. My distended stomach that looked seven months pregnant started to quiver. Despite an IV dripping pain meds directly into my bloodstream, sensations of pain shoot throughout, making concrete my new reality. I was utterly afraid that the grieving trying to express itself would result in uncontrollable weeping and shaking that would tear at my fresh openings below. I could not cry. I would not cry. My hand rested on my belly in an effort to stabilize. I had to maintain control. I had to be strong. These feelings could be dealt with later when stitches and tape weren’t holding my stomach together.
When the nurse left the room, I sat with feelings bordering on disbelief, emptiness, and gratitude. My rational mind knew that each day represented healing. It was only going to get easier. I was relieved to be, as the doctors worded it, “in remission”. Compared to many, I got off lucky. And during all of this, I felt gratitude for having had the experience to feel life grow within me, to give birth, to raise life, even if under circumstances less than ideal.
Still, the sadness remained for what was lost. There was an ability, a freedom to conceive and bear life that was taken before I was ready. My womanhood capabilities were no longer. I had to bury this sadness away for a little while. To process it at a different time, or, if easier, in little bits over the next while. As the two Andreas said, exchanging cancer for infertility was “my best option”. Even though I had months to adjust to the idea of bad c-cells invading my body and the resulting surgery, this loss needed more time to sink in. The whole experience was surreal. I’d often ask myself, “Is this really happening?” To which I’d respond with an edge of disbelief, “Yes, Thomasina. It is”.
They say the experience of cancer is different for everyone. I am not sure where I fit, except scattered in mini pieces all over. On the chart, I was one step away from the next classification of type 2, god forbid. Surgery is one thing, but type 2 cancers require treatments for which I didn’t want to do battle. In the cancer building, there were people with whom the physical side effects of the chemotherapy and radiation were clear. I found myself turning away from the confirmation of their reality, just as I had done as a kid whenever I saw visibly sick people. In contrast, others looked like I felt: healthy, fit, strong…. They looked exactly like me, maybe even you. Yet we were all there for the same reason: a clump of bad cells, a tumor, threatened our very existence. I’ll never forget the interactions of a teenage girl and her father who I saw leave the cancer building one day.… At her age, a world of possibilities and dreams would be just opening up. Instead, panic and fear filled her eyes. This shit is real. And each doctor visit that I attend as they monitor me for the “what if” possibility, will remind me of that.
The scars on the area of my body once deemed fertile and attractive will also remind me of this seemingly insurmountable experience: the deep apprehension felt within that drove me to ask the nurse for a few more minutes before having to entering the preparation room; the purple gown that I was supposed to put on that I instantly imagined covered in blood, and how that same apprehension, spinning faster and heavier, drove me to ask for another five minutes before committing to actually putting that gown on. My scars will remind me that, despite those fears and ‘what ifs’, when I awoke to the warm hands of a nurse touching my arm, relief and lightness flooded through. I was not only freaking alive, I was dressed, not in a blood soaked robe, but a clean hospital gown covered in happy pink and yellow flowers.
My scars will also remind me that, despite my deep-seated insecurities, my friends have my back. They know how to create spaces of unconditional love and acceptance, even when I am scared or angry. These new lines will also remind me of my postoperative complications and the resulting ambulance ride where, lying down, I was gifted a view of the Squamish Chief that spoke of our relationship to land and the work that I still needed to do; the one who followed behind in his own car to meet me at the hospital; and the younger one who awaited my safe arrival back home. I made it through one hell of a roller coaster ride. Not everyone is so lucky. And now, all I had to do was heal and learn to accept my new body.
Thanks to all who supported and continue to support me in your own ways, especially my Dad, whose calls I dearly miss. This would have been a lot harder without you all.