I saw my doctor for the last time yesterday.
For the final examination, she ran her hands along the healed scars from expert slicing that rid my body of disease and made me, as I requested, not necessarily beautiful, but interesting.
She then gave me the all clear to move on with my life.
There are still odds and ends to take care of – monitoring my bone health while on medication that’s no good for bones, getting fitted for a sleeve to keep lymphedema at bay, and considering which other body parts might need prophylactic removal as I never, ever, ever again want to hear the words, “You have cancer.”
“Nevertheless,” she said. “You’re done.”
And that’s when I started sobbing.
a wakeup call
These were tears of joy and release, tears that spoke to the whirlwind that was the last four months. Not just the anxiety and loss of control, but gratitude for what this women did for me from the first moment we met and discussed my “crappy options.”
When I dried my tears and gathered myself together to say goodbye, she told me she would be retiring this year. We’re the same age so I was a little surprised. But I assume there must be a lot of emotional burnout dealing with cancer all the time – and weepy patients like me.
But burnout was not the reason.
She told me she’d had a wake up call to do all the things she wants to do while she’s still healthy enough to do them. That call came when her best friend developed Alzheimers Disease. At this point, she has declined so much, she can’t be left alone anymore.
laughter and forgetting
I feel like I got off pretty easy this time. I only had to have my chest “altered” and not endure month upon month of treatments.
For me, time was compressed and there was a simplicity in gathering information, focusing my energy, circling my support team and trying to come to terms with my new reality before finally trusting my gut (and doctor) to do what had to be done to get better.
And I have gotten better – and stronger.
This week, I hiked up steep hills. I practiced yoga and increased the flexibility of my very tight arms and chest. I went out of town for my first overnight trip to the “Driftless Zone” of Southern Minnesota to learn about owls and hear superbly played chamber music.
I went to work, giving a presentation about the flute. I made everyone laugh sipping water to raise the pitch of my demonstration coke bottle then said the word “embouchure” with an outrageous French accent. I also shared colorful stories about conductors and musicians, and all the wild experiences of my former professional flutist self.
It was fun.
And I forgot all about being sick.
One of my friends really likes the way I’m managing this mess by not racing back to normalcy but rather discovering what “normal” means to me now. He calls me a sur-thriver. I love that!
Sur-thrivers aren’t immune to fear. We know insecurity is just a part of life and use that knowledge to direct our actions. All religions and great thinkers get that. The Buddhists use Zen, the Stoics use equanimity. Saint Paul told the early Christians to rejoice, trust god and not to worry about anything.
Think about that for a second.
Not only does Paul tell them something that feels unnatural when the chips are down, at the same time, he suggests they should be happy about it. In fact he says it twice for emphasis.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice. Have no anxiety in anything, but with prayers and thanksgiving, let your requests be known.
That’s pretty cool – and damn hard to do. Especially when we have what economist Russ Roberts, calls “Wild Problems.” Those that are “are untamed, undomesticated, spontaneous, organic, complex.”
But no matter what life throws at us, there’s room for humility. There’s room for prayers and thanksgiving. There’s room for tears, but also for joy and wonder and imagination.
My doctor exemplified all of that in choosing retirement now. When I asked her what she plans to do first, she said take a hike! But added that in planning to hike in the Southern Sierra, she was terrified of running into rattlesnakes.
Yup, she’ll run into rattlesnakes, though they’re mostly just sunning on the trail and in a slight stupor, so it’s easy to wither walk past or to lightly tap the ground to encourage them to slither away. And they are so cool. That only made her shiver – yet not change her plans.
Time may be running out and my wake up call is getting louder every day, but I’ve reached the terminus of the breast cancer trail, that is a certainty. I’m done and it’s time to let this go, to face my future and make the next steps, the ones that put all this awfulness in the rearview mirror, my priority.
And for that, I say rejoice.