My life with metastatic breast cancer is a life where I have to look at losses head on or risk missing the world that opens in front of me, as beautiful and lovely as ever. There are times when people tell me, directly or just through implication, that seeing the pain is being negative, but I believe acknowledging the "negative" emotions and events widens the range of positive emotions and experiences in my life. Why would I seek to live half an emotional life when my physical life already feels too short?
I often think about a trip I took seven months after my diagnosis, soon after I finished weekly treatment with Taxol and started on every-three-week infusions of Herceptin and Perjeta only. I flew to my father-in-law's house in Georgia, where the plan was to visit and then drive my mother-in-law's car to Illinois.
I made this trip on my own, at the suggestion of my husband who wanted the old 1997 Ford Escort station wagon, but also pointed out I'd be able to stop whenever and wherever I wanted rather than taking our usual rushed route between the two states. I plotted detours, such as to South Carolina's low country and an extra day In Asheville, and made my way home at a respectable pace.
Then I arrived in Cincinnati, where I had decided to visit the Krohn Conservatory and Cincinnati Art Museum in Eden Park. There are moments when I still vividly experience my despair upon seeing a poster for an upcoming exhibit of Raphael's “Young Woman With Unicorn.” The tour of the painting, which is usually in Europe, would include only Cincinnati and San Francisco. I felt a profound sense of loss at that moment.
Knowing I would most likely never see it in person, “Young Woman With Unicorn” suddenly and strongly became a symbol of all the events, the beauty, the love I would miss in my life. The things I might not get to do or see, the people I wouldn't know or watch grow up. I don't tend to dwell in that place of sorrow and longing, but I am a visitor. It's a place that travels along within me. Even when I experience absolute joy, even in those moments there's a shadow of the bittersweet that comes with this diagnosis of a disease that can't yet be cured.
Cancer has introduced me to women and men who grabbed onto life but died anyway. Their families and loves continue, but the empty space where they were is vast. And there are those who continue to live, but cancer has limited the world in which they can move, because of pain or side effects or the cost of care.
On a recent trip to Utah, as I rafted down the Colorado River with other women who'd had breast cancer – they were uniformly past treatment for early stage cancer – my mind and heart felt that familiar sensation of wonder at the world in front of me and regret for those who weren't there to see it, as well as sorrow for myself as I considered whether this would be the last time I'd visit this beautiful, wild country.
I sometimes feel as though my heart cracks a little each time a friend's cancer becomes less treatable and breaks apart at the news of impending death. I picture the names of these friends, too many of them, stitching my heart and soul back together where it has torn, becoming part of me that knows hope, gratitude and immense love for this world.