Almost every one I know who has cancer has an analogy for their disease. It is a way to visualize it, to make sense of it and to frame it in a way that helps people move forward with some kind of action plan. A large number of people with whom I’ve spoken over the years envision their cancer as a target; an entity in which they can fight, kick its ass, destroy and thus, emerge a victor. Most of these folks are the newly diagnosed or newly recurrent cancer patients. They have a time frame of treatment. They are the newly knighted; the initial shock has worn off, the anger and fear is fresh, their urgency is raw and now they are ready to do battle. Their weapons are numerous, potent and proactive: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, exercise diet, alternative therapies, mediation, prayer…..the list goes on. They visualize these weapons into mental images. I’ve heard it all: a shark devouring the hopeless single tumor, a machine gun army descending upon metastasis, tornadoes, firestorms and piranhas. From Pac Man gobbling lymph nodes to the The Incredible Hulk, shoving the enemy off a cliff, it’s all about attack. For the duration of the treatment, cancer patients have a vision that help them focus, reduce the fear, increase the hope and believe.
Six years ago, at age 41, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer with metastasis to my ovaries and abdomen and a non-aggressive form of lymphatic leukemia. I spent five weeks in Auckland City Hospital as I was living in New Zealand at the time. Luckily I had a supportive group of friends who visited me consistently. When we spoke of my treatment we used the language of war. I was a warrior, ready to “fight this bloody thing into submission.” My visiting oncology nurse and I would chat about visualizing my cancer as an enemy.
Over the next two and a half years I underwent major and invasive procedures: five abdominal surgeries – including a groundbreaking operation that required seven months of recovery–and two separate months-long rounds of chemotherapy. What had started as an aggressive, metastatic nightmare had now become, three years later, a low-volume and stable disease.
Suddenly I found myself in an odd state of limbo. I had not been cured, but I was far from dying. In fact, I was now able to live a high quality of life. My ongoing oncology treatment was now a matter of maintenance chemo with few side effects and monitoring with PET scans. I resumed working as a full-time teacher. I got a dog. I hung out with friends. I bought a house. I had energy and, health-wise, I looked like everyone else.
I often heard statements from the newly diagnosed regarding how cancer did not define or control them. They had cancer but “it didn’t have” them.
Well, after all this time, it certainly had me. For good or bad, cancer had irrevocably changed me. I now had a much deeper sense of who I was and what was really important. Cliches aside, I no longer took life for granted. I finally figured out what it mean to appreciate every day I was alive. I was now able to see the importance of living a life of purpose and integrity. I learned to face challenges head on, with a kind of courage and humor that I possibly couldn’t have possessed before cancer. So accepting all that cancer had given me, why would I want to battle it?
Like many of my fellow stage IV brothers and sisters in it for the long-haul, the analogies of aggression just didn’t cut it for me anymore. At some point the concept of “battling” and “fighting” wasn’t relevant. After years of exhausting, aggressive treatment and enduring a non-stop emotional roller-coaster ride, I transitioned into just living with it.
The shark, the army and Hulk were retired.
I now had a new analogy.
Let me share:
I am sitting around minding my own business. Someone walks up to me and hands me a baby animal that’s on the critically endangered list. “No take-backs!” he proclaims and then takes off. It could be anything from a California condor to a gorilla. I am left with something helpless and high-maintenance. I know nothing about caring for it. It’s this noisy, difficult, scary little thing that is suddenly all mine. Over the years I learn to deal with it and care for it. It’s not easy. It’s highly unpredictable. I have to learn its schedule. I have to be there at all times, defending myself from its claws or teeth, feeding it, nurturing and protecting it, giving it all it needs to thrive. As it gets older, its needs and personality changes. It’s a burden and yet it’s a source of information and an opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes. I’m never comfortable with it, but I don’t hate it. In fact I have come to respect it, accept it and see all that its presence in my life has given me. I never planned on having one but now we are so close we are inextricably linked.
One day, perhaps soon, it’s going to die. Because of our unlikely bond, I will die with it.
Hopefully the sadness and regret will be trumped by how much it has enriched, expanded and heightened my abbreviated, yet very special life.
I know people have different ways to cope and to survive. But for me, redefining my cancer and seeing it as an unsettling and unlikely companion rather than a mortal enemy has helped me endure and to do more than survive. It’s helped me live.
By Carrie LaZarre