Cancer Is a Wilderness That Gives Us a Choice: Panic or Trust

A non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor writes about how she chose to approach a stressful doctor’s appointment and how doing whatever helps may look different for everyone.

In September 2005, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Active treatment would last nearly a year, during which I endured the brutal in-patient chemo Hyper-CVAD (a drug combination of cyclophosphamide, vincristine sulfate, Adriamycin [doxorubicin hydrochloride] and dexamethasone), a psychotic drug reaction and a septicemia, better known as sepsis, that almost did me in.

By mid-January, I’d completed six rounds of Hyper-CVAD and it was time to check my progress with a second bone marrow biopsy. The first biopsy my oncologist had performed back in September revealed that 98% of my bone marrow was a cancerous mush.

But this afternoon, I was thinking less about the shocking results of that procedure and more about how much it hurt. So, I decided on some pre-emptive self-medicating. My friend Laurie and I went to lunch and I sipped the most expensive Chardonnay on the menu.

All about comfort food, I savored a bowl of homemade tomato soup and corn bread. In the chatter and buzz of that warm, busy café, I — in a wig covering my bald head — looked the same as the other women. Ladies who were healthy, who lunched in chic bistros, who were not scheduled for their hip bone to be bored into with a large-gauge drill and then have the marrow sucked out. Of course, I wanted the wine.

Over lunch, Laurie and I talked about a trip we’d taken to Maui with our families five years earlier. Young, fit and adventurous, we decided we could swim out — and back — to Black Rock off Kaanapali Beach, a quarter mile from our hotel, fine linens, yoga on the beach and sunset cocktails.

With fins, masks and snorkels, we swam in the calm sea. As we neared Black Rock, the sun pierced deep into the clear, blue water, and the kaleidoscope of fish beneath us was breathtaking.

But better, much better, was the giant sea turtle that glided past. Letting the current take us, we drifted beside the choreography of his graceful flippers, the fine geometry of his shell. Exuberant, I thought him the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.

The giant turtle blinked and headed out to open water. I wanted to follow him, but raised my face and looked shoreward. The beach umbrellas were smaller than the ones in our nightly Mai Tais. How had we drifted so far? Were we caught in a rip tide? I glanced one last time at the magnificent animal.

We couldn’t afford to panic. We had to trust. Catching a wave shoreward whenever possible, we swam with deliberate strokes. Arm over arm, feet and legs kicking in the warm buoyant salt water, the sun hot on our backs. Eventually, we stumbled up onto the sand, our legs wobbly, but our spirits soaring. We couldn’t stop smiling.

We had ventured into a wilderness, been swept away, then made our triumphant way back.

Cancer is also a wilderness that gives us the choice: panic or trust. Choose trust. Make steady progress until you get well and return to your beautiful, everyday life. But — like that swim to Black Rock — we won’t be the same person when we come home; because wild and indifferent cancer swept us into its depths and currents and will change us into a stronger, more triumphant person.

Deep into our recollections of Maui, I forgot about the biopsy until I glanced at my watch. With the last of the Chardonnay, I swallowed an Ativan. By the time Laurie and I walked into my doctor’s office, I was not exactly relaxed — but accepting. I did not share my self-medicating with my oncologist and asked if Laurie could come into the procedure room.

“Of course,” she said.

Although I clamped onto Laurie’s hand with a death grip, this biopsy was not nearly as bad as the first. My oncologist wrote in my medical record: “Pt tolerated procedure very well, no complic, min blood loss.”

I’m not advocating this type of self-medication but figure: Whatever helps. A glass of Chardonnay, a magnificent sea turtle, an unshakeable trust in our strength.

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