Turning a Death Sentence Into a Passport for Life
Ten years after diagnosis, three years after my bone marrow transplant: At 42, I didn't yet know that I fell into any subcategory, only that I was several years past my stated expiration date. "The way this cancer's come on so fast," the raw-boned oncologist who diagnosed me with stage IV said, "you have a year or two to live." Years later, she'll no longer be a practicing doctor and I'll be alive and kicking, but again, I didn't know that yet.
But here are some things I was starting to know. When you're swamped by fear, ask yourself: "How are you right now? Right now, are you in the hospital? Right now, are tumors swelling in your spine, cracking bones, forcing you into a fetal position?" The one time that they were doing just that, I was flown to North Carolina for a procedure that, it turned out, I was too sick to begin. In a last-ditch effort, a doctor tried a hormone treatment no one had used much since the '60s, and in a turn that still seems impossible, the cancer, for no good reason, retreated and lay down, where it has pretty much remained. Every so often it snarls and raises its head, and we switch treatments. We smack it back down.
"How are you now?" I learned to ask myself whenever I feel an ominous buzz in a bone, whenever uncertainty threatens to swamp me. "How are you right now?" And each time, the answer is, "Fine. Stay right here, in this day, stay right here in your mind." That's one of the things I say to counsel myself. Also, "Leave room for the God factor—no one can say, with ultimate truth, what will happen." And: "When you're afraid to move forward, ask yourself what's the worst that can happen." One night, on chemo, I was comparing notes on the phone with a friend, another cancer patient, who said, "When you're fighting the insurance companies, don't you ever think, 'What are they going to do, kill me?'" It is, I've decided, an exemplary motto.
Furthermore, this: "Keep going and don't look down, if you do you'll hit," though this one I can't manage perfectly. I still think I'm going to die soon. I fall and hit bottom all the time.
I'll have adventures of the mind—and, perhaps, some impact on the world...