It was just after 2:00 am on a Saturday and my then-boyfriend (now: husband) had come home from work to find me lying on the floor, halfway under the coffee table with my hands gripping one of the legs. My grip was grinding into the furniture so tightly that my knuckles were white and my palms felt as though they were becoming one with the wood.
I was there because I was in the most excruciating amount of pain… a pain that I had never felt before. That is quite the surprising thing for a woman who has had natural childbirth - twice - to say, but it’s true. It was a new bar that would only be beaten a few months later when both of my breasts were removed. That, officially, is my own personal best for pain.
This night, however, it was the legs that were screaming at me.
It certainly had zero resemblance to humor lying on that floor.
I had just begun the second half of chemotherapy which came with a drug called Taxol. The first 2 months of chemotherapy delivered “The Red Devil” - known in the medical world as Adriamycin - a drug that is worthy of its nickname. Coupled with Cytoxan, that cocktail made up the main mix which was administered along with a whole host of other steroids, biological stimulators and more.
By this point in my care, I had not tasted a meal in two months because everything tasted like chemicals and metal. I had lost my hair and the ability to go up a flight of stairs without becoming completely winded and struggling. The layers of skin on my fingers and my feet was sloughing off so much that I could peel it. The shots used to combat the blood cell loss by the drugs made every inch of my body hurt to where a light touch had me in tears. My stomach - my heart - my kidneys - my lungs… everything was in the battle and they were all fighting their own piece of it.
Then came the second half with the Taxol and the resulting leg pain that landed me on the floor.
It was at this moment that I was sure that chemotherapy was going to kill me. Understand me: I have had moments of terror in my life. I’ve managed to survive atrocities and fight my way through societal ills but it was here - on the living room rug - where I had experienced real fear. I’ve never (until then) known what it feels like to truly believe that I was dying.
This night, I was sure of it.
I hear that cancer patients often go through this moment - the moment where they believe they won’t live. I believe it’s a combination of our own pain and experience with the visual of the infusion floor - the multiple faces and the few that don’t return… The recognition that our body isn’t our own because it’s controlled by doctors, oncologists, surgeons and nurses. This is the time when we cover our fear with preparedness and we learn to accept life’s inevitable end. This was mine.
It was in the midst of pain, however, that I made a new promise to myself. I promised myself that if I lived through all of this… if I were to, legitimately, make it to the end and still be living, that I would live my life with a different set of eyes.
I vowed to live authentically, to love endlessly and openly and to always hold my soul in high esteem. Even if I had not passed away in treatment, I’d die someday and what I drove, what I wore or what my business card said my identity was would make no difference, then.
The great question I had to answer was: “What am I doing all of this fighting for?” and it was my answer to myself that pushes me to this day.
Photo by A Shot In The Dark
As cliche as it may be to some, I really did have this moment and, nearly 4 years into remission later, I still live that memory and its subsequent promise.
My leg pain is a constant battle. My body and mind are not what they used to be. Scarred and marred, my synthetic, nippleless breasts are permanently numb in patches. My forced menopause from the removal of every female organ often leaves me breathless in regularly occurring flashes of heat coupled with a heart that races to the point of a fear it will stop beating right then. While I do still think about death a lot more often than most, my prayers are no longer to keep it at bay but to just make it painless whenever it arrives.
As awful as those things can sound, I don’t live in those moments.
I live in between them.
For it was Winston Churchill who once said, “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”
I was inspired to survive. Not in a matter of physical survival because we all have an end. No one is guaranteed to see old age. No one. Surviving is not about hoarding days. It is not about longevity. To survive is to rise above the muck and the mire and find the life and beauty in between.
So, I shunned my corporate attire and I marched forth into an industry I’ve always loved from afar. I ask “why not?” a lot more often than I ask “why?” and I tell those that I love that I do feel as such - for there is a magic to the words when there’s a voice carrying them.
Every day that I wake I do my best to have no regrets when I sleep. I don’t apologize for my self care, even if it means saying “no” to someone else. I fight for my craft and I no longer conform to expectations other than my own and I encourage us all to do the same.
There’s a real beauty in all of this. A beauty that we can all understand.
As you wake for your own day and fight through your own life’s battles - through all of the pain - through all of the hurt… the ugliness and the awfulness… there is beauty to be seen. Ask yourself the same question I did: “What are you doing all of your fighting for?”
My mission is to not only see the beauty but to also share it. Whether it is art at a gallery or the beauty of humanity on the streets around me… it is there. It’s in the full face of a child and the paper-thin skin of a grandmother’s touch. It can be found in the flower and the weeds. It’s in a mid-cancer self portrait.
We have the power to power-down and go see the three dimensional world around us. We can touch the hand of a stranger and make a friend beyond the inflated highlight reel of Facebook. Let your ears ring from live music. Draw cartoons on the sidewalk with chalk. Sit on a patio and soak up the sounds around you. Grab a glass of wine with that long-lost friend. Forgive.
This new life that I have - this second chance - will surely be a short one so I am taking this opportunity to share this truth: our lives and the ability to live them is the most valuable thing we all have. As long as we’re breathing, we have the ability to do more than just hope. We can DO.
There’s beauty everywhere and my only prayer is that I get to live just long enough to see a lot of it. I want to soak it all up while I can and I hope to encourage others to do the same.
Well, that.. and maybe the ability to photograph a drive down Route 66.