Friday, June 20, 2014


When I divulged my diagnosis to other people, their eyes bugged out and their voices filled with disbelief.  'You're too young,' they replied. I agreed with a simple nod but wanted to blurt out, 'No one is too young for cancer. I'm not an anomaly. Get over it. It could happen to you, too.' In my mind I silently defended the brutal reality that the person to whom I was speaking was no more impervious to death than I was; he or she just had the luxury of not having to think about it.

~ Kairol Rosenthal, "Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide to Cancer in Your 20's and 30's"

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A few weeks ago, I watched a friend of mine wash an apple. This friend, who I will call, "Becky," was preparing some fruit for a few families who were hanging by her pool for the afternoon. I don't know why that apple caught my attention, but it did. I was completely mesmerized, first by the simple fact that Becky washed the apple like I used to wash an apple. She put it under the tap, turned up the water handle for a split second, then shook off the excess drops before slicing it into pieces.

I don't remember anything that Becky and I talked about as we stood by her sink after she rinsed that apple. All of the sudden, my mind started racing about so many other things. Mostly, I started to think about how everything had changed.

I thought about it several times that afternoon, as I pitched wiffle balls to kids from the pool, and as I watched Annabel learn to jump in the water. Everything changed, I repeated in my head, trying to get comfortable with the thought that was stuck in my mind like a bad radio ad (1-800-54-GIANT?).

When I got home, I pulled out a book that my therapy lady had given me. It was called, "Everything Changes," so obviously I felt it was fitting for my swirling thoughts. I had never more than skimmed the book, still too scared to know much of anything about cancer beyond what I am forced to know. But all of the sudden, my curiosity trumped my fear. I read the first part. When I came across the quote copied above, a lot of disjointed pieces in my head started to line up. 

Yes, a lot of things have changed since cancer entered my life. For one small but representative example, I wash apples differently now than I used to. I use a brush and I scrub them really well, for 15 seconds or so. I even wash in the little crevass where the stem is. While I scrub, I'm often wondering about pesticides and questioning whether some sort of chemical in something that I ate gave me cancer, or worse, could give it to me again, or worst of all, could cause the disease in my children. But there are no answers on that icky path. Which is why part of me misses the days of the one-second splash on the apple. I miss "the luxury of not having to think about it." 

Yep, I know where Kairol Rosenthal is coming from because a few times in the last two years, I've felt that way -- like other people don't understand; like they have a luxury that I will never have again. But for the most part, I don't feel that way and never really have.   

With time, I have come to believe that we aren't separated in the way that Ms. Rosenthal suggests that we are. There aren't two groups -- one with a luxury of not thinking about death and one without it. Sure, I wash my apples differently now and think about pretty much everything in a whole new context, but so many people that I care about have experienced something that has caused everything to change. In fact, many of those people have had everything change in ways far more severe than mine did. And all the people who haven't had their lives change like that yet? Well, one day they probably will. 

In a small number of ways, cancer has made me feel different and alone. But for the most part, it has made me feel just the opposite. It has made me feel connected with other people in a way I have never felt before. It has helped me be more empathetic, more honest, more human. 

I believe that we are all connected by knowing what it feels like to have a significant part our lives collapse; having something happen that changes everything. Obviously cancer patients don't have a monopoly on that feeling and I don't think it's healthy or helpful to pretend that we do. 

I hadn't read the Everything Changes quote yet when I stood in Becky's kitchen watching her chop apples and trying to decide if I would have a slice or not. Nevertheless, at that time, my mind had wondered to the very sentiment Ms. Rosenthal grappled with above. But I see it a bit differently. Sure, Becky doesn't have cancer and probably doesn't worry about pesiticides every time she touches fruits or vegetables. But Becky had her own near collapse in the very recent past when she watched her father, the proud and most benevolent king of her big and young family, battle back from a sudden and life-threatening illness. She waited while he underwent a surgery that doctors admitted was terribly risky. She raised three kids and held a job in the meantime. And I'm sure there are other things I don't even know about Becky that could prove this point once more. I don't know Becky very well, but I know that cancer didn't make me different from her. Life puts challenges in front of all of us and we all need to decide whether to rise or fall to the occasion.  

Nevertheless, ignorance of one's vulnerability probably is a luxury. I see that ignorance in my own children and it's precious. But there's also preciousness in knowing that every day is a gift.

At some point, all of us will experience something that seems to change everything, straight down to how we wash an apple. It may be something sudden, like a cancer diagnosis, or something more gradual, like the unwind of a marriage. It's wildly ironic that when that thing happens, most of us will feel alone -- painfully and tragically alone -- when really, we are now connected to countless others in a way we never were before.

It's only now, almost two years after my diagnosis, that I've realized that when everything changes, the most solid stuff stays the same -- love, fear, and the truth that we are all human. Not a hero and not a failure. Not someone with something or someone without it. Just human. Trying to eat every bite of the apple while hoping we don't choke on it or die of cancer. And trying to enjoy how delicious it all is in the meantime. 


  1. somehow, Tara, you always manage to say exactly what I feel!

  2. Honored to be the subject of one of your blogs. Your writing continues to be so poignant and inspirational. Looking forward to your book.
    - "Becky's Benevolent Dad"