Learning to cope with a cancer diagnosis is an ongoing process. Coming face to face with death forces one to reexamine what is really important.
Tori Tomalia is a two-time cancer survivor currently living with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer since May of 2013. Her first cancer experience was childhood osteogenic sarcoma, for which she received chemotherapy and curative surgery, and had been cancer-free for over 20 years prior to the lung cancer diagnosis. Along with cancer, Tori juggles life as a mom of 3 small children, a wife, a theatre artist, writer and lung cancer awareness advocate.
Having stage 4, incurable, metastatic, terminal lung cancer (or "eventually terminal" as my cancer buddy says) has made me acutely aware of death in a way I never expected to be at age 38.
I walk in the land of the living with the oppressive knowledge of how very close we all are to the land of the dead.
I know that right now my cancer is under control, but one day this roller coaster will dip down again. Will it come back up or will it be the final plunge?
People ask me how I cope, knowing how very uncertain my future is. Learning to cope has been a gradual, ongoing process. First was the shock, a frozen inability to process this new reality
. Then there was the grief, the acknowledgement of my lost future, all the things I had just assumed that I would get to do and see. The plans that I had laid crumbled beneath my feet. But I realized that I couldn't stay in that mental space. I felt like I was wasting the time I had left here by focusing on my lost path.
So I stopped looking down that road. I started doing what all the self-help gurus tell you. I grabbed onto the old cliché and focused on "living in the moment." It is liberating and bizarre. And I get strange jolts when I remember that most people don't live like this.
I'll look back on this when I'm 80 and I'll laugh about it!
This will make a great story to tell my grandkids!
I avoid thinking about my own future in any concrete terms. I can think in a general sense about the future of the world, how things might be one day. But to think about my family
five years from now sends a pang through my heart.
In five years, our little boy will be 11 and in middle school. Will he still have his heart-achingly gentle outlook on the world? Will he still be the kind soul who once explained to me, the reason Oscar the Grouch is so unhappy is because he lives in a garbage can. How can he sleep? The poor creature is miserable, no wonder he is rude.
In five years the twin girls will be 8. There will be no baby talk left in them. The terrifying sounding "pinado" will become a simple "piano," and the aptly named "hungerburgers" will be plain old "hamburgers."
Those 3-year-olds have the concept of living in the moment
down to a marvelous, frustrating science. When prancing around the house like Elsa and Anna, nothing else in the world matters.
"It's time to get dressed and go to preschool."
"But we're dancing!!!"
Really, what matters more than the joy of spinning around in fairy wings and a cape? Being around small children forces
you to stay in the present moment. The runny noses and sore tummies are so grounded in reality and immediacy that there is little room left for worry about futures that may or may not be.
Isn't part of growing up focusing on the future? Be an adult. Plan for tomorrow. Think ahead. Prepare for the rainy day. How are you supposed to do that when you KNOW that your future holds a typhoon? If you focus on the storm, your today will be washed away. Who knows how long any one of us has? In my case, I most likely know what is going to be the cause of my death. Does that make it different?
So I avoid thinking about the future. At least most of the time.
It's a tricky balance. I am a mom, so a big part of my job is preparing my kids for the future. How do I prepare them for a future that may not include me?
Tori Tomalia is many things: a mom, a wife, a theatre artist, a mediocre cook, a Buffy fan, a stinky cheese aficionado. She is also, unfortunately, a repeat visitor to Cancerland. Stay tuned for her continued adventures.