An interesting thing happened to me that would never have happened BC (before cancer). I was supposed to attend a cancer survivorship workshop at Harmony Hill, a remote retreat center in the middle of the Olympic Peninsula. I had a wretched evening at work the night before and in my wine induced state of relaxation I jotted down some quick notes on how to get there along with two potential ferry departure times. The next morning was stormy and waking early, I checked to see if my ferry was still running. I hopped in the car with a book, water bottle, blanket and pillow for sleeping on the ferry and $20 I borrowed since I was between paychecks . I missed the ferry I was supposed to get on due to traffic making me potentially 45 minutes late. Oddly, I was unperturbed by it and snuggled down in the car with my blanket and napped while I listened to it rain. Once on Hood Canal I followed my directions which consisted of highway numbers but no street names and no right/left turns or towns I would be passing through. I promptly got lost. I called Neil for directions since I didn’t have a state map in the car or a fancy phone with GPS and turning around headed off in what I hoped would be the right direction – another delay of 15 minutes. Again, I didn’t seem bothered by it all and Neil was more distressed than I about me being in a town not even close to where I needed to go. Heading south, I had to call for directions one more time and in the gray gloom of a big November storm, I drove the narrow curvy roads framed on one side by dense forests and the other by the dark, choppy bay in odd and bemused serenity. I arrived an hour late after three hours on the road and settled in with a deep curiosity about what had just happened to me. Or rather what DIDN’T happen to me.
What happened to the person who planned everything in advance down to the last detail? Even the fact I had no money was odd for me as I usually was so careful with budgeting just in case something happened. Not only was I traveling to someplace completely unfamiliar with only vague directions, I didn’t even have a map to fall back on! I used to be a completely non-spontaneous person who needed to know not only what Plan A was, but also Plan B and C. I tried to factor in the “what if’s” and be prepared for anything. But here I was without even having snacks in the car much less enough money to buy food if I needed to!
When I was diagnosed with cancer I responded in much the same way. If you had asked me ahead of time I would have told you that I was a person who would have it all mapped out. I would have done my research, known all the details and possibilities, terminology and horror/success stories. I would have thoroughly researched doctors, gotten second opinions and asked around. But I didn’t even look up my diagnosis online. I knew I had cancer, that I didn’t want to have it and that in the end I wouldn’t. The steps in between having it and not having it were as vague as my directions to the workshop. It seemed that the important thing was where I was now in relation to where I hoped to be….the “how to” part of the story was an exercise in being present in the moment and seeing what unfolded.
This is such a fundamental core shift for me that all I can do is observe with curiosity what happens when I am put into situations that used to have a particular pattern and outcome. The problem is this is a change that is hard for other people to see. While it rocks my interior world on the outside it translates to, as my son said, “mom, you took that really calmly”. It is so much more than that to me. How do you relate to this new person when the rest of the world expects something else?
I tried to explain this new self to Neil as we were discussing the job I worked so hard to get BC and cared nothing for now. “You will get used to it, you like being important” he said to me….but no, I don’t. At least not in terms of public recognition. I used to think that I wanted – NEEDED – the validation of being recognized as important and in charge. I needed attention and credit and while I didn’t want to stand alone in the spotlight, I wanted it pointed in my general direction. Always being a cheerleader for the people around me, I now find myself more and more raising others up and doing what I can to make their work/lives easier. I’d rather be in the background walking softly on my own path than in front of the crowd being the IT girl. And more than once I have found myself talking about my deep desire to be of service to others.
These days I have no need to prove myself anymore and no desire to compete anywhere other than on the golf course. I proved that I was brave and strong as I walked through the doors with my family by my side to have my breast amputated. I proved I was determined, capable and a hard worker by doing 36 consecutive radiation treatments with 3rd degree burns from day 7 onward and still going to work every day. I proved that I have a deep connection to Spirit by the prayers I said every day and the deep faith I put in the process and people around me to do the right thing for my health. And the people around me showed me in ways that I could no longer blow off that I am loved beyond measure regardless of what I do, what I look like or what I am going through. I don’t need to be in charge at a job any more, I don’t need a good review or high sales numbers anymore to prove that I am worthy and worthwhile. I already know.
People tell you that cancer doesn’t change who you really are. I don’t think that is true. So much in your day to day life has changed but society, as well as ourselves, push us to get back to normal. In doing so we may resume old patterns that might not have really worked very well to begin with. For all cancer survivors, with varying levels of acceptance, there is a New Normal. I believe that cancer is a vehicle for deep change – it is a window to discovering who you are inside, without all the trappings of what society tells us is important. It strips away the shiny wrapping to reveal what your life really is about and what is really valuable. It shows you how scared, how brave, how beautiful, how powerful you really are. This is not a comfortable internal process to say the least and the changes in my behavior will probably continue to perplex me and other people. Perhaps it is easier to fall back into the way things were because right or wrong, they were at least known.
My father, a prostate cancer survivor, says cancer is like having a bird on your shoulder – with each passing year the bird gets smaller but it is ALWAYS there. Supposedly these shifts in attitude and awareness will change, slow down and go away. Cancer will become less of an issue and in the end I will be the person I was. But that is not what I want. I don’t want to forget. I am purposefully not forgetting and intentionally not changing back to whom I was and my old ways of doing things. I do not want to rebuild the shell and I certainly do not want to forget who I am again. I need to learn to live in this body – as it is right NOW – I need the unflinching white light of daytime pointed on the changes externally and internally so that I can really embody what has happened to me. People tell me that cancer does not define a person and indeed I have not let cancer become who I am. However, I have realized who I am through the process of having cancer. And I am liking what I see…