This past weekend, I drove to Gulf Shores, Alabama, with Michael and Zach to fish. It’s a trip that they’ve been doing every fall for a few years now. They meet up with another father/son duo and they fish. And they fish. And they fish. And they fish. There’s a lot of fishing. And this year, there was also a lot of catching! (More on this later.)
This year, I went as did a friend of Michael’s friend. Nice guy. Sadly, his wife just finished a four-week course of radiation and a lumpectomy for breast cancer. One night, over dinner, I brought up the subject and said how sorry I was to hear that she was going through it. He thanked me and talked about how hard it had been to face his wife’s diagnosis. He continued to say how thankful they were that she didn’t have to go through chemo. He talked about the fact that it’s so bad for you that the doctors weigh the risks of it against the risks of the cancer. So it must be bad. Just awful. Right? That’s what we hear, see and pass on, at least.
I’ve talked about my truth regarding chemo before, and I’m about to do it again, because it bears repeating.
The truth is, I’m grateful for it. Every last drop of it.
It’s powerful. It’s serious. But you know what else it is?? It’s necessary and … it’s possible! Before having had chemo, I used to think that it was barely doable. I had even heard, “Let’s hope it kills the cancer before it kills you!”
In fairness, chemo was not easy. No walk in the park. But can we please stop all of the hyperbole around it? Particularly those among us who have no actual idea. Please.
When you think about chemo, what are your immediate images? Let me guess … baldness and vomiting? Chances are, I’m right for most of you. Did you ever think about why we think these things? It’s because when the media, a movie director or even a hospital wants to show the face of cancer, they show a bald one. It’s a striking image — nearly unmistakable. And vomiting? How dramatic! That makes a great scene. We’ve all been there, on our knees in front of the toilet, feeling like every last ounce of whatever awfulness entered us is emerging with a force that you couldn’t stop if you tried. Maybe your experience wasn’t due to chemo, maybe it was a bad flu or too many tequila shots, but we know what it feels like, and so we think we can relate.
But guess what?
Not everyone loses their hair. (I did.) And not everyone pukes. (I did not.) For me, most of those months, I spent with grinding, unrelenting nausea and stomach pain that left me with a permanent look of disgust on my face. But that doesn’t make for good movie scenes.
The fact is that chemo has just as many invisible symptoms as it does obvious ones. And for all the side effects it causes, it has one undeniable main effect — it kills cancer cells.
I understand that it’s not effective for everyone. Sometimes, the cancer is too advanced or too aggressive or existing chemotherapy medications don’t work on a particular type of cancer. And for those reasons, I am hopeful for better treatments to be found.
I remember hearing for the first time that I had to undergo chemo. I was dumbstruck, feeling so much more scared of chemo than any other part of the process. More than bilateral mastectomy, more than radiation — more than the cancer itself! I had images of dizzying episodes of vomiting and extreme weight loss and other unknown uncontrolled symptoms that would leave me with IVs and hospital beds. Until that point, I had no personal experience with chemo. My mom had had it years ago, but I did not see her on a daily basis while she was undergoing it. I knew that it made her dreadfully tired. And I know that she threw up once and lost her hair. But it was not her experience that instilled this fear in me. It was all the “other” stuff I’d heard.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I know that no one wants chemotherapy. But for some of us, we have little other choice. We must undergo the process if we wish to be healthy enough to live a full life. Please don’t make it worse for us. Have sympathy. Try to empathize, even. If you can’t, at the very least, shut up. Please.
For those who are facing the possibility, know this: chemo is to be taken just like everything else in the world — one day at a time. The symptoms don’t happen all at once. And they don’t last forever. They can be strong. But so are you.
For those of us who have had successful chemotherapy treatment, holy cow, I’m thankful. I still remember hearing Dr. Schwartzberg’s voice as she told me that the pathology report from my surgery was back. “Good news … no cancer!” I had had a complete pathological response. Gratitude, nothing but complete and utter gratitude. It was all worth it. Every last drop.
Here fishy, fishy, fishy!
I could talk about the two days where the guys caught (next to) nothing. Instead, I’ll talk about the first day when they hooked about two dozen enormous red fish and … AND … landed 5 sharks!!!
Zach was the first of the group to snare a sand shark this year. He was so happy. Then Josh did (Greg’s son). Then Zach did again. Then Josh did … again!
The piece de resistance was when Michael landed a 80+ pound black tip shark. It took a team effort between Michael and Greg to get him on shore. The pictures show what a big fish this really was. It took all of Michael’s strength to hold him up. Gritting his teeth through his smile, he was saying “hurry up this is heavy!”
I don’t fish. In fact, the only fish I touched was the fish I ate. I’m not against fishing; I’m against boredom. So, instead, I took part in my ideas of fun — I read (six books for my research paper), I ran (a 10K for the first time in years and years), I did yoga (on a second story balcony with the ocean as my drishti), and I took pictures (see below).
Little secret: I actually did touch (for a super quick second) the black tip shark. It was lying there on the beach and Zach was perched beside it, in awe. He kept smoothing its skin. He said, “Aren’t you going to touch it, mom?” I said, “Uh, no?” (Did we just meet or something?!) You know how this ends. Zach gets me to do things that I’d never otherwise do. Things like hold a snake, touch a giant shark, watch an episode of “Walking Dead” and wake up at 3 am to watch meteor showers. To date, I regret none of these things, which is why I suppose I keep doing the things he asks me to. And there continues the circle of living.
Fall into November
November has been a great month. On November 6, I got a letter from the Graduate School at UNC Charlotte notifying me that I have been accepted into the Foreign Language Education (FLED) graduate program. So, in January I’ll be starting my master’s alongside completing my bachelor’s in German. I’m super excited. I’ve met with my advisors, and I’m already scheduled for next semester. In fact, I’ve already chosen the book I will translate for my graduate-level German class and have talked with the professor about getting a head start over Christmas break before things get rolling again.
I also have started the process for studying abroad. I met with an advisor from that department and worked out my details. I am planning to study at Goethe Institut for eight weeks — four in Hamburg in June and four in Freiburg in July of 2018. I am so excited. (Have I mentioned that?)
Here in Charlotte, the holidays sneak up on me. You see, in Colorado, it starts to get cold over night in September. Usually, we had our irrigation system winterized by the end of September to avoid bursting pipes. By October, it had begun snowing on and off and the leaves were long gone. Halloween costumes were usually decided on based on what would fit a coat underneath. Yes, we’d still get warm, sunny days sprinkled in (which I loved), but I was always aware that winter was coming. I got more warning than Jon Snow.
But here in NC, it’s just warm and sunny. And eventually the leaves turn and start (only start) to fall. Suddenly, Thanksgiving is a week away and I’m supposed to think about Christmas trees? I think that NC has chilled me out in a different way. I’m not so eager to “get on” with the holidays. Seeing the mall decorated with trees, poinsettias and wreaths while I’m not wearing a coat just seems bizarre. Maybe over time I’ll get used to it. But I don’t mind the new way of feeling like every thing has its season. That’s something I’ve always known and tried to practice, but have found it increasingly difficult with the ever earlier Christmas channels on Sirius, holiday commercials, shopping passes arriving in the mail, and the dreaded Christmas trees at Home Depot before I’ve bought my pumpkins.
Christmas can wait its turn. I don’t need to start planning the Thanksgiving meal in October. I want enjoy these last months of 2017 just as I did the first months of 2017! One day at a time. Right now, I’ve got papers to write, applications to fill out, verbs to study and (apparently) a turkey to buy.