‘The Shipwreck of My Life’: How a Patient With Cancer Navigated a Treacherous 2021


A patient with metastatic breast cancer reflects on the difficulties she faced in 2021 and why a shipwreck is the perfect metaphor for her year.

On a recent weekend road trip to Cambria and Moonstone Beach in San Luis Obispo County, my boyfriend, Josh, and I came upon an abandoned shipwreck off the coast of the tiny town of Cayucos. Josh had stumbled across its location on Google and mentioned we should try to find it. It was on our way to our destination and just a little way off the road.

I happened to be wearing a pair of slip-on sandals, which turned out to be a poor shoe choice for this little adventure off the beaten path, as it was a slippery walk down a small cliff to get to the beach.

Josh headed down first and I came after with our recently adopted dog, Ashley, until I could reach a spot to pass her down to him. After a slight stumble and slide in my not-so-choice shoes, the three of us were on the beach. We had to watch our step for tide pools and incoming waves.

Somehow, I managed to set up my tripod, frame the scene, and snap with my timer what would ultimately be my Christmas card picture for 2021.

Marissa's Christmas card photo.

Marissa's Christmas card photo.

Navigating these rough seas in my life this past year has truly felt like a shipwreck some days. Starting with Josh's motorcycle accident and then our schnauzer Heidi being diagnosed with and dying from canine lymphoma in May, we have had our share of struggles.

When Josh’s accident happened in March, I suddenly became the caregiver. That first month was harder on me than anything I’ve ever had to deal with besides my own cancer. It took six months before he was able to return to work and he still is dealing with a few residual issues but for the most part has made a complete recovery.

The silver lining to his accident is he was able to be with me as we dealt with Heidi’s cancer, from diagnosis and treatment to her passing. She is missed so much. As I reflect back, I think the only stability in my life this past year has been me. My cancer has continued to respond to the PARP inhibitor Lynparza (olaparib), which I am extremely grateful for.

I do love when a photo tells a story. I always try to capture something that sums up the last year in my Christmas card picture. This one definitely shows hope and perseverance but also loss and abandonment. It shows the rough and choppy waters but also the beautiful sky and life in the tide pools. It just felt so fitting that we were standing on the beach with a shipwreck behind us.

Everything about the photo symbolizes the shipwreck my life has been in 2021 and the fact that the shipwreck is behind us gives me hope for smooth sailing as we enter 2022. What a crazy adventure this life can be.

The story I read behind the shipwreck is an interesting one. Apparently, a few years back the boat ran aground. After all the hazardous materials were removed and the boat was stripped of all its parts, the boat’s owner did not want to pay to have it removed due to costs. The land it is located on belongs to the state of California, that also didn’t want to pay to remove it.

So there it sits, a quirky roadside attraction and the perfect backdrop for my Christmas card and theme for the year 2021. I think most people can relate as we enter the second holiday season in the COVID-19 pandemic. Wishing you all peace, joy and calm waters.

Heave ho, onward we go.

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