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breast cancer trail: healing

Once I began walking outside, my real healing began.

inhabiting the vulnerable space

I had a dream last night that I was 15 again. That’s when I was right on the cusp of starting at a new school, the Interlochen Arts Academy. I really did go there for the final two years of high school, but sadly not while possessing the wisdom I possess today.

Haven’t we all had those dreams, where we get a second chance and a do-over? It’s divine to imagine, from my perspective in late middle-aged, who I might have been at a place like that where all I needed to focus on was music and academics and cross-country skiing and Saturday night dance parties. What would have mattered to me – and what would not have mattered to me?

As I slowly heal from this radical surgery to save my life and secure my future, there is so much that swirls in my head about what illness can teach us in a life full of hard edges and one not meant to last.

It’s funny that in the weeks before surgery as I attempted to get my body and spirit as fit as possible for the struggle ahead, I hiked, biked, swam, paddled and climbed as fast and hard as I could, mostly in an attempt to outrun the rage and absolute terror of my predicament.

Now, taking my first intentional steps outside, slow and careful, the purity of my reality surrounds me and can’t be avoided.

the human experience

It has not been the easiest of two weeks since surgery. I’ve been nauseated, exhausted, and in pain, teary, overwhelmed, unable to sleep and, all the while, draining massive amounts of black goo from one side that swelled up like a bruised Hulk Hogan.

Still, each day has brought progress and the realization of just how fortunate I am that the cancer was caught in microscopic form. How lucky I am and how brave to have quickly gone for it, and sought out a full-on amputation so I could be over and done with this nightmare.

In a recent interview with one of America’s most prolific writers, Joyce Carol Oates, the 85-year-old author speaks about aging, mortality and loss. Loss is the human experience that creeps up on us until we suddenly realize it’s our experience. “When that starts to happen to you,” she admits, “It is quite stunning.”

To be sick and out of control is certainly part of being human – and, as you can imagine, frightening and agonizing for someone who celebrates her health. Cancer for me was falling-to-my-knees humbling.

Many people have said I’m courageous and “bad ass,” determined and fierce, inspiring and positive. Truthfully, more often then not, I’m simply attempting to live up to that ideal and often linger in the world of despair and negativity.

Let’s be honest, not all of life is a course of hope or the heroic story of overcoming things. Struggle with the existential is part of the human experience too.

illness as omen

Still, I don’t find myself lost in struggle for long. Movement and nature exert their gravitational pull on me, flinging me closer to the person I want to be, even if it’s a sauntering stroll around the same neighborhood blocks day after day to rebuild my strength and endurance.

When things get really tough, it’s cognitive endurance that’s developed. The crappy stuff of life without ready answers or solutions become like initiations, maybe unwanted and unbidden, but offering up distinct boundaries that pose a question – who will you choose to be going forward?

That’s the message inside the do-over dream mentioned at the outset of this post. Who will I be and what will things look like as this ordeal fades into my past? Is it possible to simplify and filter out what matters? Can I live mindfully and also with audacity? Can my life have meaning beyond suffering?

One of my favorite actors, Julian Sands, loved to hike. Last January, during a storm, he vanished into the mountains near his home in Los Angeles and was confirmed dead a few weeks ago. In reading his obituary, I was so taken by how he described his love of walking in beautiful natural settings.

Mr. Sands pointed out that people who didn’t climb mountains assumed it was all about a “great heroic sprint” to the summit and padding their ego.

“But actually, it’s the reverse,” he said. “It’s about supplication and sacrifice and humility, when you go to these mountains. It’s not so much a celebration of oneself, but the eradication of one’s self-consciousness. And so on these walks you lose yourself, you become a vessel of energy in harmony, hopefully with your environment.”

I certainly long to be myself again. I want to heal and go on. I want everything back to normal as soon as possible. But eradicating self-consciousness and becoming something bigger than my imperfect, mortal self sounds a whole lot better.

2 Responses

  1. Beautifully written, Alison. Cancer is a reckoning, indeed. Well, life is a reckoning. I love what Julian Sands about the immersion the moment, of losing one’s sense of self…and yet, how that is being fully oneself in the moment, in the world (especially of Nature). And even with our moments of not being fully strong or completely healed, that is sill true.
    I especially appreciated and am moved by your words about living with pain. A reality none of us want…kinda don’t exactly anticipate or grasp until it happens. It takes courage and grace. You nailed it!

    1. Thanks, Jo-Jo! It’s tough to be sure, but part of life and can make the sweet parts all that much sweeter. I am surprised by my walks, oftentimes right now anyway, the exact same routes over and over. I still see new things and feel grounded my each step.

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