Category Archives: Stand Up To Cancer

Carrying Your Big Wet Dog (Thoughts on Cancer Survivorship)

 

 

June 2018

I am in a day-long staff development, never a good place for me. I have a hard time sitting still, being quiet, being professionally “appropriate.” I interject, grow restless, stand in the corner and stretch. I admire the way other teachers can sit and listen and contain their restless minds–how the elementary teachers listen patiently while the speaker discusses high school standards.

I can’t sit like that. I organize my Google drive, catch up on Poem-a-Day reading, and still hear every word. I try to self-regulate. I watch the clock, limiting my comments to one per half hour.

(Years ago, after attending a monthly series of regional staff meetings together, a teacher from another county stopped me as we were leaving. “You know,” she said, her hand on  my shoulder, “I have never in my life seen someone who looked like they weren’t paying attention at all who heard every word.“)

I do hear every word. I just can’t idly sit with my wandering mind. It might go to yesterday afternoon, when, in the back of a desk drawer, I found the inky footprint of my stillborn granddaughter. It might go to the recent death of my co-worker. The death of my best friend. The tests my husband Greg is about to have–since, fresh off of cancer #3, he couldn’t see the other day. My brain may scream, “HE COULDN’T FOCUS HIS EYES.”

I think it is better for everyone if I quietly read a poem 


During the meeting, I messaged a co-worker who was sitting in a waiting room in St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where his young daughter, an ATRT survivor, was having her quarterly brain scans. He texted that she was in recovery. I replied, “I’m sorry. Every time. I’m so sorry.”

What I wanted to say, what suddenly sprang from my heart, was, “I’m so sorry you have to carry this wet dog around.”

I didn’t say that, of course. Too odd, even for me. Carrying a wet dog? 


September 2018

I’ve sat with that analogy all summer–long enough that he is today, again, at St. Jude’s awaiting his daughter’s scans. No one I’ve run it by gets it. They don’t understand when I look at them and say, “Surviving cancer is like carrying around a big wet dog.”

But . . . picture your dog lost in the woods. He has been there overnight, and you have been searching desperately, wandering down spider-webbed trails, your good shoes getting ruined by the muddy muck near the river. And, finally, there he is–you see him on the shore’s edge–he is soaked, the water running off his matted fur in rivulets. His paw is badly hurt, but you are so happy to see him that you don’t care. You elatedly scoop him up and begin to carry him home. He smells. He is sticky and panting and soaked. Your arms ache. The walk is long–through dry creek beds and briars; you dodge broken vines and stumble over tree roots. Your dog is whining–he’s tired and hungry and hurting–but you happily carry him. You whisper into the warmth of his ear: I will take you home, and all will be well.

You will rest together. He will be in his bed. You will be in yours.40862229_900181213506411_5640981768501723136_n


That’s the goal in Cancer Land. While well-meaning nurses may talk about survival in terms of children’s high school graduations and wedding days, the real goal is only this: everyone back in their proper place. Children in their beds, parents in theirs, under one roof.

When cancer causes you to miss that, even briefly, you realize that life’s treasure is simple: it is presence.

The ordered dinner table with every chair full–Dad, Mom, and offspring. Quiet chatter about boring days. Bickering about the last piece of chicken or who has to bathe first.

During a thirty-one day hospitalization, it’s all anyone craves: presence.


In understanding the treasure of presence, you truly comprehend the cost of loss.

The same hospital stay that teaches you to treasure a family dinner, a carpool ride, or a Monopoly game also allows you to survey the spectacle of death and sorrow. You are there when a grade-schooler gives a eulogy for his newly-dead father. When a groom diagnosed weeks after the wedding dies days before anniversary #1. When Val, who is young and beautiful and kind, dies anyway, and the nurses leave her name tag up by her empty room for days–until, when you can’t look at it anymore, you take it down.

(You still carry it in your wallet seventeen years later. You couldn’t throw it away in 2001. You are no closer to being able to now.)

If you are in the hospital long enough, you watch dozens of people die, sometimes two or three a day.

One weekend, five people die. Children die.

You still remember the wails.


319704_10151036722415980_65686374_nIt is a miracle that anyone escapes–that anyone walks away from their front row seats of sorrow and horror–and so much more of a miracle when it is you.

Miraculous to stand, to find some footing, to gather yourself and make your way past the travailing parents, their only daughter dead. To walk past the orphaned children, the people wailing, “All is lost!” To look at them, recognizing that, for them, all is truly, truly lost–yet you yourself are able to continue to walk.

To exit that place, to walk away from the helpless and leave them unhelped–it is, in some ways, the greatest sorrow of your life.

But you don’t care what it is you have to carry–how damaged or mangled or heavy your load–because you are walking flint-faced past scores of the barren and empty-armed.

Your arms are laden, and soon, you will rest.

 

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Slog On Through Cancer–Not Quite as Catchy, but More True

Lately, I’ve been angry at cancer. It seems weird to be this far out and be suddenly outraged, but that is the place that I find myself. For some reason, I’ve been thinking of how my life would be different in the present if cancer had never become the word around which our life was built.

I heard the voices in my head the instant I typed that sentence; those Christians who instantly say God should be; the optimists who say thinking about words other than cancer would be step one on my road to happiness. The sad fact of the matter is this: the word cancer has been at the center of my family’s life—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—since the day that Greg was diagnosed. Until you have been in this place, sat in this place, for year after year after year, you cannot in fact say what word should be where in a cancer patient or caregiver’s life.

Today, when I got to work, my eyes were screaming, betraying my exhaustion. My new co-teacher, a friend now for only six months, looked at me and said, “You know, you always are going through something big. You don’t have any of those problems that can be fixed by running to Lowe’s and getting a part for the water heater and “Poof!” it’s done.”

And that, I think, is it in a nutshell. There is nothing easy about this life after cancer, although we are so grateful for it.

We became lost briefly in the backroads of Macon on Saturday. It was Greg’s birthday, and we’d had a great day in Atlanta, a day spent touring Rhodes Hall and the Georgian Terrace, then enjoying a lazy lunch at Mary Mac’s. Now, we were looking for a pharmacy that sold dry mouth patches Greg’s oncologist had recommended. We’d been to pharmacy after pharmacy with no luck, and I was becoming frustrated. I looked at him and said, “I know one thing: I’d rather be doing this than bringing flowers to your grave.”

Abby, horrified, immediately said, “Mom! That’s not something you SAY!”

Greg turned to her and said, “I know exactly what she means.” He patted my hand.

That’s what cancer has been for us—a journey where we say things we shouldn’t say and feel things we shouldn’t feel, all while being aware of how close to the grave he came. No, Greg’s never marched in the Survivor Lap at Relay for Life. He’s never worn a ribbon. We don’t celebrate his transplant as a second birthday. We haven’t embraced cancer survivorhood as a lifestyle, but we can’t escape its mindset.

I struggle more with this than Greg does, especially on a day like today, where every other post is about standing up to cancer.  The posts are alternately defiant and optimistic; there are posts from people who have lost their children, their husbands, their first loves. We know so many people who have paid far greater a price than we.

For me at least, cancer is more than a slogan, ribbon, or picture. It’s our friends who are dead and their semi-orphaned children; it’s doctor bills waterfalling around us; it’s prayers in the dark. But most of all, it’s that man beside me, who is missing part of his bottom jaw, who has his donor’s blood running through his body, whose DNA now matches hers. February 4th is, to me, a day like any other: a day when I am awed by his strength, impressed by our daughters’ fortitude, and therefore impelled to continue.

I don’t know if we are still standing up to cancer, but we are slogging on.