Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
Some cancer survivors are good at getting on with life. Some of us remain timid about the prospect of life, even when a prognosis is good. A new year is a good time to try harder to seize the day, whatever the future is likely to bring.
Some cancer survivors seize the day with gusto. Others tread lightly. I call the latter the “Deer Effect.” Think of a deer caught in the headlights of a car, frozen and confused about which way to turn.
Where I live, there are many deer. I know which curves invite us to slow down, especially at certain times of the day. I drive with deer whistles on the grill of my car. I trust that they work. As likely, they are a symbol of how cautious I am.
Just as I have dealt with cancer, many of my friends have dealt with scary deer incidents, but they keep driving, without fear. Many of my friends surviving cancer forge ahead as well. If only I could seize the day, without fear. Stress is not healthy.
At least I keep on trying, even if it takes effort to get me out the door. I talk myself out the door. I go to work. I visit friends. I hike and shop for groceries. I marvel at herds of deer in a field at dusk. As I try push myself to expand my horizons, sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. I hope in 2018 to try harder to be less afraid. I want to meander a bit farther afield, literally and figuratively, without worrying about cars and their bright lights startling me.
I also need to paint the ceiling to my kitchen. Not painting it is symptomatic, too. How long can it go until it has gone too long? The ceiling and I are in a standoff at the Not-OK Corral. Will I die before it gets too bad? Or should I fix it, no matter what comes? I should do something.
While I am likely to live a long time, I am just as likely to live a shorter life than I would like. Life with cancer in remission is a crapshoot. Even with the positive role models of friends and family members surviving cancer — from metastatic disease to the terminal illness – I find myself with my pretty positive prognosis at a loss sometimes. I am a deer, frightened by the light.
A psychologist might call this light "life." After several years, and continuing good reports, I still find myself startled by life. A reclusive person by nature, I have let this Deer Effect (cancer) give me an excuse to be more reclusive. After all, safe in my house, even with a ceiling that needs painting, I am comforted by the corners. I seek sanctuary in birds that come to feeders and the sunlight that falls through windows on orchids and violets.
I have learned to trust flowers. If only I had as much faith in myself as I do in my violets, I would get in my car and ride far outside my comfort zone. I would take a cousin up on her ongoing offer to meet in Vermont when summer is at its finest. I would stop making excuses about visiting an old friend who has moved three hours away. I would find a way to see Sandhill Cranes as they migrate through Tennessee not so far from where I live.
Perhaps, with the resolutions that come with a new year, I will find a way to look forward to more, to stop living so completely in the zen moment that I get stuck, doe-eyed, between the fight and flight. Cancer survivors can make resolutions! We can have goals.
I am not a deer caught in headlights. I am a human who benefits from medical advancements and human compassion. I am a human who could be a little less afraid of life, I will remind myself until I believe my own advice. Meanwhile, the first step past fear is make plans to walk out my door and drive to Tennessee to see some Sandhill Cranes this January. I will do it.