Kelly Irvin is a multi-published novelist and former newspaper reporter who worked in public relations for more than 20 years. She retired from her day job in 2016 after being diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neuron disease, and stage 4 ovarian cancer. She spends her days writing and loving her family.
So, what was the first thing I thought about when I vowed to not think about cancer? Cancer, of course.
Cancer. I haven’t written that word for several months now. After the successful completion of a second round of chemotherapy for a recurrence, I was determined to handle my NED (no evidence of disease) differently this time. I wouldn’t obsess about my tumor markers or my three-month CT scans. Cancer would not be the first thing I thought about when I woke up nor when I went to sleep at night. I wouldn’t obsess with every little twinge that might be the first sign of a recurrence. I wouldn’t spend my time while I exercise imagining all the scenarios possible if the cancer did return.
So, what was the first thing I thought about when I vowed to not think about cancer? Cancer, of course. It reminds me of that country music song that starts off, “You were the first thing I thought of when I thought I’d drink you off my mind.” (Just to be clear, alcohol was not involved in my campaign.)
My Twitter feed is full of the latest cancer research news and fundraising efforts. My Facebook feed includes posts from a closed group called the Teal Sisterhood of Ovarian Cancer Survivors as well as at least half-a-dozen cancer organizations and research groups.
The evening news assures me a new clinical trial shows drug x y or z “may” be the answer to cancer. Every other commercial during the evening news is for a cancer drug that “may” extend life for cancer patients.
My new maintenance drug can have the same side effects as chemotherapy. I take it twice a day, seven days a week. Invariably, I think about its efficacy and how long it will continue to work as I swallow those two pills. Nausea is still my companion after almost four months. I still take anti-nausea drugs as well as other medications and maintain the prescriptions.
I finally had to face facts. Unless I isolate myself in a cabin in the mountains where the internet doesn’t exist and no one knows of my battle, I will daily be reminded I have cancer.
It’s better for me to give cancer a role in my life. A positive role. I can use my awareness that metastatic cancer can return at any time to sharpen my perspective on life and prioritize the important stuff. Cancer reminds me to be thankful everyday for my blessings; to enjoy the sunshine in the morning; to feel the breeze on my face; to laugh at my grandchildren’s antics via Facetime. To savor peanut butter and honey sandwiches; to save my breath when it comes to arguments that nobody wins and change no one’s mind; to read more and watch the news less.
Cancer gives me a push to not only enjoy life, but to also be worthy of life. I’ve signed on as my church’s lay prayer coordinator and I serve on the church’s new accessibility committee that works to remove barriers that keep folks with disabilities from enjoying worship on our small campus. My mobility impairment due to a motor neuron disease makes this an ideal place for me to serve.
This is not what I thought I’d be doing with my retirement years. I envisioned being the one sent into the mission field. Instead, I’ve learned to accept God’s plan for me to pray for those who go. Nothing can be more important to a church’s ministry than prayer. God called me and he equipped me. Not the way I wanted, but the way He wanted.
Cancer is a kick in the behind when it comes to the use of my time. I just signed a new three-book contract with my publisher. This, too, is my mission field. I have so many stories to tell and so little time. That’s true for most writers. I no longer worry about whether I’ll be around long enough to fulfill contracts. Life’s frailty affects everyone, whether they have cancer or not. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. All the more reason, to make today count.
Bring it on, cancer. You’re welcome to sit on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. I’m the one in charge of assuring that I use my experiences in a positive, powerful, life-affirming way.