Thursday, December 9, 2010

Two Kinds of Surprises

I was so proud of myself. I had just completed a year-long commitment to running to and from work every day. Yes, it was a pain packing the daily backpack with towel, shampoo and work clothes, hanging the sweaty running gear up to dry in the office locker room between runs, and making my 10 year old daughter go super slow so that we could commute home from school together - me on foot; she on two wheels. But I savored the efficiency of combining my 3 mile commute with my daily exercise needs and reveled in my independence from gas tank fill-ups, crowded buses and even flat bike tires and road grit. Freedom was truly mine on my own two feet, and I was as healthy as a 41-year old female could expect to be without super-extraordinary effort.

That is why it was such a huge surprise to suddenly find myself in a hospital bed with a thick, 8 inch scar from my navel to my public bone. The diagnosis was colon cancer; the surgery had been abrupt and extensive.

"We spent a long time just cleaning out the infection," Dr Imatani explained in a calm, reassuring tone. "The tumor perforated the colon and grew onto your left fallopian tube, ovary and a section of the transverse colon," he said. The doctor had taken all three. He left me with several staples, a few tubes jutting from my body and an ostomy.

What is an ostomy? I sure as heck had never heard of it. But there, on the lower left side of my abdomen, was a plastic bag stuck to my skin. Through the transparent film, I saw a red cylindrical protuberance about 1" long and 1" wide. It was my colon. The doctor had made an incision in my abdominal wall, extended the newly-severed end of the colon through the slot and stitched it securely to my skin. The children call it a 'button.' I call it my second asshole. What a joy.

The shock of learning that I had had cancer overshadowed any queasiness about the new, distasteful dimensions and operations of my body. That I still had a body - and a conscious that recognised the fact - was a relief. That I was the host of a disease known to torture and kill millions of people each year, however, was a heavy and difficult awakening.

My first thoughts were of my children and my potentially early demise: I would miss them terribly; they would bear the scars of losing a parent. I shed a few tears of sadness for all that I might not be there for. But, being a planner by nature, I began to do the math, vaguely through the drug-induced fog in my post-op hospital bed. The worst case scenario was a five year life expectancy. Could I get my children ready for life in five years? Could I finish the serious job of parenting that I had committed to, had eagerly signed up for, when Katie was born 12 years ago? I reckoned I could accelerate the parenting and get Katie launched into adulthood in that time frame. Georgia would miss out on a few crucial years of my influence and support, but she would be 15, and she was ever-resourceful. I began to feel better about all I could accomplish with whatever time limits the disease might constrain me with.

And I realized that I cannot be sad when I am dead; I cannot miss my family when I am dead. I could work with this idea of not being around forever, and chances were good that I would win many more than the minimal number of years after this scary diagnosis. I had things to do, goals to accomplish. I was not one to let a few malfunctioning cells get in my way.

After all, I was - and still am - extremely healthy. The mystery of how I got a cancerous tumor in my colon is something we will never know, and after a few days of wondering why, I stopped. There WAS no reason; there was nothing anyone did or didn't do to cause it. I had no control nor blame. Letting go of the need to find causality was the first big step down the long path of subduing any remaining cancer cells floating around in my bloodstream or my body's tendency to allow cancerous cells to survive inside of me. I eat well, exercise regularly and don't have any self-defeating addictions, like cigarettes or coffee. But everyone can improve, so I decided to do whatever I could to encourage only healthy cell growth and help my immune system recognise and destroy imperfect cells wherever they might be.

Getting healthier was a dilemma. What could I do differently? The pamphlets in the surgeon's office profiled a person less likely to develop cancer: it was me to a tee! The recommended diet included minimal red meat and alcohol; the recommended exercise regiment prescribed 30 minutes of cardio every day. I was already doing that (at least before the surgery!). So I looked elsewhere, outside my body. Where else could I make improvements to my health? The answer was clearly in my mind.

I did make a few changes to my diet, one-upping the recommendations, just in case. I cut out red meat altogether, as well as coffee and alcohol. But the bigger change-goal was in my attitude. I decided to rid myself of all resentment and anger, and any other pent-up emotional baggage that could be collecting, figuratively - and maybe even literally - in my gut. I met with a therapist to develop tools to help me find forgiveness, peace and acceptance for everyone in my life, including myself. I found a guided imagery recording and listened to it every day, trying to put into practice these ideas. I read everything I could get my hands on about cancer, healing and healthy relationships.

I don't have cancer. I had cancer. Now I have chemotherapy - it is finding and desiccating errant cancer cells that may or may not exist in my body. The drugs, with help from my visualization exercises, search out abnormal cells, crush them into a benign powder and sweep them out of my body through my ostomy...where they fall into a plastic bag...which I dump into the trash can outside. This is how I imagine it: twice a day, every day.

My six-month treatment is nearing its grand finale. I have seven weeks left, consisting of two infusions, 168 pills and one surgery. I am feeling great and in most respects have resumed my prior lifestyle, including running to and from work (albeit only once or twice a week). Many people would be surprised to know I am being treated for cancer. How could they? I am not sick. The biggest surprise of all: my experience with cancer has not chewed me up and spit me out a torn, sickly, emotionally exhausted wreck. The challenges have left me stronger, more clear-headed and actually happier.

Every day offers something to admire, from the odd beauty of a yellow-gray overcast sky to the uplifting tinkly laugh coming from a passing baby stroller. I have no fear of cancer. I am comfortable with the fact that everyone dies. Best of all, I now truly know that I have things to do, people to love and goals to accomplish, and I require a healthy, strong body to do this. And so I have.