A wintry April day, mean north wind sledding down the bluff, hurling tiny snow grains sideways at my face as I walk from the eye doctor’s to the coffee shop. Now, ensconced at a corner table with a warm cup of chai, I vow to finally write a blog post, long overdue. I’m cozy here, in wool pants, a sweater, until one of the baristas strides over and opens the window beside me. The kitchen must be hot. A potted tree now sways and shudders its leafy branches in the breeze. A newspaper flutters to the floor; the wind turns the pages of a magazine, and now, delicate clouds of snow stream in, like talcum from a powder puff (that’s been stored in a freezer).
Today is the two-year anniversary of my friend Lauren’s second cancer diagnosis. Two years ago, we were both getting mammograms on the same day, mine “routine,” hers because she’d found a lump above her remaining breast. (You can look back to my post around two years ago to see what “routine” was like for me). Last week was the three-year anniversary of my diagnosis. When Lauren and I talked on the phone the other day, she told me that she intended to mark this anniversary consciously, to celebrate her recovery. When I asked if she’d decided on a plan, she said she hadn’t yet. This morning, when I opened up my email, I saw that she’d settled, in part, on marking the day with gratitude. I was one of many recipients of Lauren’s email message, thanking her posse of friends and healers for supporting her through the ordeal of treatment, and the recovery after. Does recovery ever stop? As my own posse can attest, it doesn’t, at least after three years. Another concurrent anniversary, March 24, suggests recovery takes way longer. Twenty-four years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, poisoning Prince William Sound and the coast all the way to the end of the Alaska Peninsula, where the Aleutian Islands begin. Anyone who lived through the spill can attest that recovery occurs on its own time schedule, not budged by our human wishes. Ask the orcas. Ask the sea otters and marbled murrelets. Ask the herring. Ask the fisher-folk and the beach gravel. Whenever I see one of those laden crude oil tankers skulking its slow way down Hinchinbrook Entrance, flanked by glaring yellow tug escorts, the shadow the spill falls on me. Perhaps I expect too much of myself, in terms of recovery.
Lauren and I had one of our long talks the other day on the phone. I don’t have a cancer survivor support group here in this small town. I have Lauren. She has me. And yet, when we go through what I can only describe as spasms of fear, which pass through from time to time like earthquake aftershocks, we don’t call each other. We think about calling. But we don’t pick up the phone. We hold our fear close. We don’t want to scare each other. If I told her about my side-pain, told her I feared it was cancer in my liver or lung or ovary, would I trigger worry in her? Add to her own cancer recurrence paranoia? But I also don’t tell Craig about these fears. I don’t tell a single friend. The first person I tell, after working myself up into near-panic, is my sister.
So this is what’s been happening since my last blog post. Not a respite, not a hiatus, not, no reason to post a blog because cancer’s not on my mind, but the opposite. And it’s strange to admit that my own cancer anniversary did not register in my conscious mind until it was too late. Too late to prepare, to anticipate trouble, much less celebrate or make a ritual. That’s the rub. When you prevent awareness from stirring up trouble, the subconscious steps in to stir up its own insidious, devilish brand.
Back east last month, after a plane flight, I woke one morning with a pain in my waist, under my right ribs. When I took a deep breath, I felt a stab. My doctor-sister felt the spot, said it was muscular, take Advil. Being me, I didn’t. I ran, did power yoga, thinking the pain would fade on its own. But it didn’t. By the time I got back to Alaska, it was waking me up at night. And so, before I called my sister, I let cancer-terror take charge. Jet-lagged from my travels, ungrounded from having been so far from home for three weeks, alone in the house without Craig (he was still in Hawii), I turned to the Internet, which for someone like me, should be nicknamed to Fast Road to Hell. They call it searching. And indeed it is, though it’s metaphysical. Am I going to be okay? Death, is that you? It is not rational. Searching may bring you to get in the car, but fear is what drives this road. The verb for the road to hell is not “search,” but “google”. I googled liver metastases. Lung metastases. I googled kidney cancer. Pancreatic. Ovarian. And then the lesser cousins, taking side-roads, directed there by links and discussion boards. Kidney stone. Gall bladder disease. Gastritis. On the breast cancer chat rooms I recognized fellow travelers on the Road to Hell. Women fearful of similar aches and pains. The responding stories of speculating others. Perhaps these places are a kind of limbo, where we, existing for the moment between life and death, between the land of the well and the land of the sick, wander, searching for reassurance, often getting the opposite. With my Catholic upbringing, limbo always called up images of mist, like fogs creeping across the moors where King Lear raved in his final days. In Cancerland’s online limbo, the mist is composed of fear. And when you go there, you breathe it. When you wander there, the mist obscures your vision.
Finally, I called my sister. And she told me that I had to email my oncologist. “Only he can reassure you,” she said. And she was right. He did. And the pain faded away (with the help of a lot of Advil and no yoga or running). But the night before I finally did call him, the night I realized it was the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, I broke down completely. I woke up at 2 am, my side zinging. I cried, then spasmed through one more google nightmare ride until 4 am. In the morning, I sobbed in my friend Margaret’s kitchen. I emailed my oncologist, and then I drove to a radio station to be interviewed about whales and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After the interview, when I read my oncologist’s reply email (what you describe does not sound like cancer to me; most symptoms like yours turn out to be benign, and resolve on their own; treat the symptoms and wait it out), I cried again with relief. And not just any relief. With the big relief of every mammogram that is clear. With every check-up in which I’m pronounced “the picture of health.” A relief as deep as the plunge into hell had been. I spent that afternoon at my friend Marybeth’s house. Marybeth wrote a book about the oil spill. The Heart of the Sound, it’s called. In it, she grapples with the oil spill and the ending of her marriage. Like me, like the Sound, she has never fully recovered from that spill. And she never will. But Marybeth knows something about healing. About balming a wound. She made me a sandwich, gave me Advil, brewed me a cup of tea, talked with me for hours, took me for a walk to a half-frozen stream where she’d seen a wolf. She handed me a towel and opened the lid on her hot tub. She and her husband took me to dinner. And the next morning, I picked up Craig at the airport, and the pain in my side was a mere figment.
I’d like to be more poetic in this blog post, but it’s not a poetic day. The sky is a dingy blank, the wind’s still damn cold, spring won’t come, and I can still feel a tiny twinge in my side if I sit too long in this chair. The coffee shop is frenetic with conversation. The Rasta-flag colored walls are too bright. My cup of chai is empty. But it’s a day for gratitude, so I’ll follow Lauren’s lead. I’ll honor her anniversary, and my own, with this litany of names, those friends and family who got me through this latest spasm of fear, who got me out of hell and back into the land of the living.
Mara, Lauren, Margaret, Greta, Jo, Steve, Asia, Michael, Marybeth, Rick, Lowell, Craig, Erin, Judy.