Part 13. Chemotherapy 101 - Life Lessons

I’m sure many of you took chemistry when you were in school. Not me. I avoided science classes as much as possible. I’m sure many of you learned a lot in those classes and can recall the lessons even today. Since I did not take those classes, I cannot. The closest I got to taking chemistry was the twelve week course of chemotherapy I went through last summer. Chemistry - chemotherapy. Well I did have lab work every week and I did come away from the experience having learned things I won’t easily forget.

Life Lesson #1 Don’t “wait” away your life.

“I got my day back!” was a common phrase I would say to Wes last summer. He would often respond, “Yes, you got your day back!” The phrase originated early in the process of my chemotherapy. Technically you could say it started a long time ago. You see, I was a “waiter”. A waiter is someone who convinces herself that whatever you are currently experiencing will be better when…and fill in the blank. 

  • I won’t be as stressed about money when I get that raise only to end up spending more when the raise comes…
  • I won’t be as stressed when I get this new job only to find out the stress seems to follow you…
  • I will feel better about myself when I lose weight …only to find out the weight stays on, or, it comes off and you still don’t have the esteem you would hope for. 

For me it was a way of repressing feelings when I had no control over something I was experiencing that I didn't like; a form of denial. I would tell myself, “All I need to do is wait for “it” to get better” which is sometime in the future and depends on some external event happening. But somehow that future utopian state never arrives even if the event does.

Last summer I found myself doing it again. I was sitting in the chair in my family room, tired and unmotivated, having received chemo the day before. “So, September 15th I will be done. That’s a little less than 3 months from now. That’s not that long. I can wait.” I sat there a little longer, “Twelve weeks; 84 days, and then I can start planning things again.” It was the equivalent of pressing the pause button on my life. I rocked in the chair back and forth a few more times. It was quiet; quiet enough to hear a clock ticking had one been on the wall.   I wish I knew who or what I could credit for the moment of crystal clear insight that came to me. 

“So do you really think that on day 85 something is going to be so different as to change how you feel on the inside about your life? It’s an illusion. There is no future date where everything is fine. You could waste 84 days waiting for the 85th, as if that day has the power to change everything. Its just another day. There is only ever NOW. NOW in this moment and NOW in three months. So how do you want NOW to look?

In that moment of clarity I thought, “Get up. Get up out of the chair and do one thing that says to the Universe, this is what living NOW looks like. This is what participating in life looks like. Listen to your body and don’t overdo it but get up now because you are able to and do something.” 

So I did. I got up and cleaned the kitchen. Yes, I know, a little underwhelming if this were a plot in a movie but at the time I was thrilled because it said I was participating in life in whatever way was available to me. Cleaning the house, running errands, playing in the garden, going to yoga were days I would rejoice because they meant I was experiencing life in normal ways. No more waiting for life to be different; I was creating life in the ways that I could. Each one of those days became an “I got my day back!” day - another day rescued from the black hole to which I had almost relegated them.  Chemotherapy gave me that important life lesson - create your life; don’t waste it away by deluding yourself into thinking the future will be different because its the future.

Life Lesson #2 Sometimes it’s kinder to accept one’s faults rather than force yourself to grow and change.

“I am vain. No two ways about it. I am vain and I’m ok with that.” I uttered that phrase a few times last summer, too. In the last ten years I had developed enough tools that when I would become aware of traits I didn’t like in myself I had ways to easily release them. In the process I found myself able to increasingly live a more peaceful life - the more you get rid of things that push your buttons, the more peaceful you are. But not this one.

 One of many hats...and Ruby!

One of many hats...and Ruby!

With the chemo I had lost my hair and I would not go in public without a hat. I tried. My friend Catherine, who had shaved her head in solidarity, was fine going without, but not me. I wanted to be brave so one time I did go without a hat and it was the last time I did. I was leaving my physical therapy appointment with my hat in hand rather than on my head. As I walked through the waiting room a teenage girl and I made eye contact and then she looked away. That's all it took! The hat went back on...and stayed on. I fantasized about walking into a store with a bald head and a smile on my face. In my mind, my ability to do that was the equivalent of winning a gold medal in the category of not caring what people think. I worked with the various tools to let go of the vanity. I understood what was underneath it all and finally I said, “Nope, its ok. I’m vain. I don’t care. I can live with this one. I don’t need a gold medal, I’d rather be kind. Life lesson number two- not everything needs to be let go of just because you’re aware of it. Sometimes acceptance of your faults is the kinder action.

Life Lesson #3 may not really be a life lesson as much as a “thing” that surprised me with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy became a security blanket assuaging my fear of cancer’s proliferation as long as I was on it. This was a far cry from my long held negative beliefs about chemotherapy. On the very last day, when the chemo pump sounded its beep-beep-beep signaling I was done, I was elated. Wes and I high-fived one another with grins on our faces. As we drove away from the hospital, I was contemplating that I was really done. I had made it! There quickly followed this awareness of a sleeping dog beginning to awaken. Fear. It slept the entire time I was doing chemo and it began to stir again now that it was over, as if it had been patiently waiting for this day, too. This was not a friendly dog and I didn’t like what I was feeling.  The irony of how I came to feel about chemo was not lost on me either as a part of me actually wished I wasn’t done. If there is a life lesson here it is enemies can become friends given the right circumstances - be careful how you judge.

 Catherine and me, 07/15

Catherine and me, 07/15

Well, it is summer. Apparently, summer signals a time for me to take my version of those science courses again because I  started chemotherapy last week. I’ll call it Chemotherapy 201, an upper level course this time. All kidding aside, as I mentioned in a previous post, my cancer marker number went up recently causing me to research many options. I’m excited to share those options in my next post and what I have chosen to do. Until then, I have already had a few opportunities to say, “Wes, I got my day back!” “Yes, you got your day back!” he always replies.