Monday, December 2, 2013

Forgive and Forget

More than a year ago, I wrote about my cousin, Tara. I wrote about how Tara's dream was to be a famous comedian and about how she was working hard to make her dream come true.

I saw Tara this past weekend at a bridal shower in Connecticut for our cousin and his fiancé (who happens to be the current Ironman triathlon world champion!). Tara and I are by no means world champions, but I was thrilled to hear that she is still doing her comedy and she was happy that I am still writing.

As we caught up about her beautiful new baby and watched Annabel try to tag along with her second cousins who didn't really want to be bothered with her, we got to talking about Tara's last comedy show. Tara explained that that show was the first time in over two years of performing that she let herself just be herself. She said it was a huge breakthrough -- that she didn't hold back, didn't worry about what people would think about her comedy or what they would say about her. She made jokes that she knew were wildly inappropriate and she didn't care. Much to her surprise, Tara said that the show was a huge hit.

In the back seat on the trip home, Annabel slept in her carseat next to me while I reflected on my own writing. I hadn't written in over a week despite that thoughts had been swirling in my head as they always do. Of course, time had been a factor as Thanksgiving is particularly busy. But something else had been holding me back and I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was until Tara told me about her last show. Then I started to wonder, Do I let myself just be myself when I write? Or do I write with too much sensitivity as to what people will think? 

When I sit down to write, it is usually because something is bursting out of me and I feel like if I don't put it down on my computer screen, I may explode. But so often, when my fingers hit the keyboard, I get sucked into writing, or at the very least, planning to write what I have come to call "a pointless preface." 

A pointless preface is a big explanation that is supposed to stop anyone from being offended or upset by, or even afraid of, what I write afterwards. In a pointless preface, I explain that this is only my story, that what I am about to write may not be true for others. I explain that even though I'm about to share something that upsets me, I'm not always (or even often) upset. I remind my family that I'm OK, or I tell my kids (the older version of them who will read this years from now), that I hope they don't mind what I'm about to tell the world about them. 

Typically, when I go back to revise the first draft of a blog post, I end up chopping out the pointless preface. I tell myself that all that prefacing waters down the substance of the piece. But still, I hesitate to hit delete, because pointless or not, I really do mean everything in that explanation. In the end, I just have to hope that the messages are already implicitly present. 

Clearly, however, I am still concerned about all of the issues that lead me to draft pointless prefaces. I would hate it if anything in this blog upset anyone -- from a member of my immediate family to a cancer patient whose name I will never even know. My very conscious desire to never hurt anyone through this space does, however, often give me a bit of a block. Of course, I could just write a blog draft that goes unpublished, and even just yesterday, I did that. But there's something about publishing a piece that keeps me particularly honest; that drives me to more clearly explain, if only to myself, what is going through my head.  

I give you all of this hopefully not pointless preface because I realize now what has caused me a bit of a block in this space for the last few days.

I love Thanksgiving and I figured that a Thanksgiving-themed blog would burst out of my fingertips sometime over the last few days. But it didn't. Other stuff did, but I worried that if I posted about other stuff, people would think I wasn't thankful or that I didn't have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Hence, the preface.

So here's the last pointless preface I will (hopefully) ever write.

Yes, I had the most wonderful Thanksgiving and when I go back to work tomorrow and say that, not a single ounce of me will be lying. But what I feel compelled to write about here, what has been swirling in my mind for the last week has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. It has to do with betrayal.

*  *  *

This time last year, I was the sickest I have ever been. The day after Thanksgiving, I came down with a terrible fever and I was admitted to the hospital where I learned that the chemo I had received there just ten days prior had killed all of my functioning white blood cells. I can't remember ever feeling so sick or so tired. 

A friend of mine recently wrote an amazing blog in which she referenced her conditioned response to a particular song. That blog helped me this weekend as particular sights and sounds triggered memories of how sick I felt one year ago. I remember the day after Thanksgiving last year, lying in my healing chair, shivering despite my four blankets, while Brian used this strange little gun to try to get the broken Christmas lights to work again. The As Seen on TV gadget made a loud clicking sound and when I heard that sound again this year, I felt sick to my stomach. Thanks to Kate's blog, I reminded myself of the power of conditioned responses. I'm not sick, I told myself, I just have very vivid memories of being sick. There's no denying it, I really do. 

I think these memories are part of why I have woken up these past few days with more anxiety than my little peach pill can seem to handle. Since I had the silly writer's block referenced above, I did the next best thing for my anxiety -- I ran. 

Before the sun rose on Thanksgiving morning, I found myself at the track where the crowds would gather a few hours later to cheer on their hometown team (Brian insisted that I not run on the street since so many people drink the night before Thanksgiving -- see, the closet worrier!). It was so peaceful at the track and while I ran, I forgot about counting laps so that I could try to figure out why I've been particularly anxious lately. I figured out that it has to do with trust and betrayal. 

I've never read The Hunger Games but I recently found a quote from that book that really resonates with me. Suzanne Collins wrote:

“For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first.”

Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I generally trusted my body. Of course, I was slightly hypochondriacal, which means that I didn't completely trust it, but so many of my ills had turned out not to be cancer that I trusted the lump in my breast would yield the same result. Only it didn't. Instead, my body betrayed me.

I've wondered why all of the sudden, the betrayal that happened almost 16 months ago is causing such significant emotions in me now. Shouldn't I be over it already?!? Maybe I should; I have no idea the timeline on healing after a cancer diagnosis. But what I do know is that I think I discovered why betrayal has been on my mind so much lately. It's because I've started to trust my body again. 

Which brings me back to the quote, with which I agree completely. The problem is that it puts cancer patients like me in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, we can learn to trust our bodies again, have faith in their ability (teamed with the treatment, of course) to stop the cancer from recurring. But that approach risks betrayal; the ultimate betrayal. Cancer patients, particularly, I think, younger ones, have all tasted betrayal. Since it tastes so indescribably awful, it's hard to learn to trust again.

So the betrayed could do what I sometimes find myself doing -- we could distrust. What does distrust look like? It looks totally normal to the outside world. It looks like me opening my deodorant, even though inside I fear that when I reach under my arm, I will feel a lump and spend the rest of my day undergoing tests for the recurrence we have fought so hard to elude. It looks like a man feeling his neck for anything abnormal or a woman taking an aspirin and praying that it makes her headache go away. It looks like nothing, but it feels like a very heavy burden.

I'm not "prefacing" when I say that even when I have those moments of distrust, those fleeting moments of doubt, I am able to return to the trust and the faith I have developed that my treatment worked; that the HER2 protein is no longer able to make the cancer return under my arm, in my neck or my brain, or anywhere else; that I will not be betrayed that way again. Of course, none of us know what tomorrow will bring, but life seems to be better when, nevertheless, we trust that it will be bright. 

I have never taken such good care of my body, and that is happily considering the massive quantities of dessert I consumed over the past week. I have never been so healthy in the way that I approach food or sleep or exercise. It's not because I want to look a certain way. It's because I want to trust the body that betrayed me once before. I want to forgive the brutal disease that, for reasons I will never know, grew in my left breast. I want to forgive cancer, even if I'm never be able to forget it. 

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