Walking Into Cancer


Words of courage from a friend who knows that "getting through" may not be the point.

There's a tunnel under the train tracks in my Illinois town. It's poorly lit, smells like urine, has water stains and chips of plaster falling off its walls. Its stairs leading out to the tracks are disintegrating and I try to avoid touching the railings. The tunnel floor is made of wood planks that squish underfoot when there's been rain — and that is highly unpleasant on top of everything else. But worst of all, because no one likes to walk in when you're not sure about walking out, is that you cannot see the end of the tunnel when you first enter.

This tunnel is my metastatic cancer.

Not only do you not know who or what you might encounter, but every step may also be a step into something you'd rather avoid, the ways out are not easy and not without obstacles both physical and psychological. Mostly it is dark and scary, and even if you're not alone, it's easy to feel you are alone and in danger.

This tunnel is what comes immediately to mind when I hear "You'll get through this." If I were to guess, I'd say that's the expression I heard most during the early days of cancer. Even now, after five years of living with stage four cancer, sometimes a well-meaning person will say them to me and I bite my tongue. Within just a few days of my diagnosis, I started to dread hearing those words because how do you "get through" a diagnosis of stage four cancer?

A friend of mine, who died of metastatic breast cancer last year, once said that you have to walk in knowing that you might not be walking through. I hold tight to these words when I'm literally entering that tunnel in my town, but more to the point, I hold them in my heart every day because walking into cancer is an act of courage and belief in your life now and into the future.

Even things like dank, dark tunnels may hold good things too.

For instance, this tunnel actually does lead to trains that could conceivably take me anywhere — my cancer tunnel has led to some not-bad surprises. For example, on the metaphorical cancer train, I've met a multitude of people I otherwise would have never encountered and been taken places I didn't expect to go. Not gifts or anything like that, but reminders that along the way, even with cancer, there is still life to be lived.

Nobody knows if we're going to get through cancer. If you're living with metastatic cancer, getting through may not be the point. Walking in and continuing to live, at whatever pace can be managed, taking each step as it comes, finding ways out and up when you need them, trusting the flickering lights that lead onward — that might be the best, the only, thing you have.

When I don't know if I can "get through" cancer for even one more day, I picture that tunnel and my friend's words. Sometimes walking in is all you can do.

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