It’s a sunny day in Birmingham, Alabama. I woke up this morning, the cool air floating over my blankets like fog, and I laid there, eyes closed, listening to the sound of birds chirping outside. Some mornings I wake up with a noose around my heart, the reminder of what I have lost and how I must journey on. But today, I felt a little lighter — my body intuitively understanding that I could enjoy these moments of peace.
After leaving New York for a short healing sabbatical, I have noticed the silence, the stillness, as the tall towering white oaks in the yard hover over me with comforting sighs. Things move slower here — I go to bed early, rise with the sun and spend much of my time lost in reflection.
I know that people will read this post and wonder what is it like to go through such an experience. To walk into a doctors office one day, and numbingly, and unsuspectingly hear that you have cancer.
To tell you the truth, I still don’t know what it’s like. Entirely. I spent the last months of 2012 in a whirlwind of phone calls, doctors visits, insurance haggling, hormone shots, blood tests, sonograms, MRIs, CT scans, lung exams, EKGs, more pelvic exams than most women will ever have — and still — it feels so distant, so detached from where I sit today composing this post.
In all honesty, I logged into my WordPress account today — the first time in months –with the intent of closing it down. It all got too personal, having blogs about my insurance, my health, my body being open to anyone on the web.
But then I landed on the home page. October 31. I was still cancer free as I knew it. How lucky I was to just have thousands of dollars in medical bills. I thought back to that day — those days — when I knew I was sick, and then I thought I was better. I will never forget clutching my boyfriend’s hand in the doctor’s office as he uttered those words, the disbelief coursing through my body, the shock and panic that I was going to die. How life can change in an instant.
The period of sickness passed as quickly as it had come, each day a race against time to make the best decision, to honor my body the way it had been born, to save my fertility before I lost everything.
And then it was over.
I was alone in New York. The bitter winter jutted daggers of pain into my abdomen, but I was determined to be normal. Within a month after my second surgery I was up every morning, getting dressed, heading to the office. I wouldn’t let this take away my spirit, my ambition to work and to create and to succeed.
One by one, things began to crumble. My relationship, my stability, and my soul. I found myself one day throwing up in a planter in the flatiron district at lunch time, not because I was sick, but because I was broken. My body betrayed me. Go home it said. Be alone and curl in a ball and don’t come out until you find your spirit again.
I didn’t listen. For days I continued hunched down, pushing, pushing, as we tend to do in New York. I would go to my psychiatrist at Sloan Kettering and blubber uncontrollably, incoherent, drowning. And then one day, I got into work early and I just sat at the table sobbing alone. I had everyone around me — all of the support that I could ever ask for — but I didn’t have myself. I felt so betrayed by my body, my fate, the universe.
I called my mom. “I need to get out of here.” “I know,” she said.
When I arrived in Birmingham, my mother later told me, I looked grey. My skin was sallow, my cheeks gaunt. I felt like a child who had been wandering through the woods, ragged, searching for a scrap of life. I had been declared cancer free by my doctor, but my grief continued to inhabit my body like a squatter.
Slowly, the days began to pass. The sunshine managed to penetrate the prism of darkness that I had been living in; the singing of the birds a reminder to be grateful for each moment of life. I started feeling dull pain in my abdomen — phantom cramps — some reminder of what I no longer had. I started to cry in my mother’s arms. It felt good to be hugged and held, to be assured that this too, would pass.
My dad began dragging me out of the house to his painting classes and would bribe me to do laundry in exchange for lunch. He sang to me and my mom each night with an entirely off-key acoustic guitar rendition of Edelweiss, Greensleeves or Happy Birthday.
Life after cancer. I hear this phrase a lot. I don’t know what that means. As if cancer ends and then life re-begins. As if it’s washed away like a cut or a bruise and then one just carries on as if nothing happened. Life is cancer. Life is sadness. Life is laughter. Life is gratitude, and joy and freedom. We do not leave cancer behind, but we are reborn, its burnt stamp forever a part of us.
I know from other friends and family who have lived through a cancer diagnosis, that it is something that changes you forever. It has the power to darkly veil a perfectly beautiful moment in utter sadness and despair; it also can unexpectedly paint a filter over the everyday mundane aspects of life — making them infinitely more wondrous than you ever could have imagined.
I walked into my painting class on Wednesday, set up my composition sketches and sat down to paint. I got up to retrieve a paper towel and glanced at myself in the mirror as I sat down. The woman I had become. She looked back at me. I was amazed how my cheeks had filled in, the color had returned to my face and I had a peacefulness in my brow that hadn’t been there for a long time. I looked beautiful.
I knew, in that instant, that I was on my way. Headlong into my rebirth, my rise from the ashes of cancer and loss.
And so I share my story.