Despite Cancer

I retreated up to central Virginia during the Christmas holiday to be with my fairy godmother. Considering that I was visiting just a few hours away, how could I not. Aside from the intimate connection I have with her,  January 2nd would mark two years since my fairy godfather died of cancer. Being with her during this time seemed obvious.

The night before was a sappy mess of wine tastings, wine, and more whine as we sat and reminisced.

As anyone who has experienced close loss, I still expected him to come bounding into the kitchen and announcing loudly that he, in true British-fashion, was going to have a cup of tea - as if anyone cared. If you knew him, you can probably still hear his booming and self-centric voice now. Most of us learned to tune it out.

He was diagnosed with cancer almost a year to the day that I was. Mesothelioma - not what you expect to die from in your prime. I remember him sitting across from me over that Thanksgiving weekend, him talking about the chest x-rays, the concern over a dark mass, and the fatigue he was experiencing. I knew then what he was going to find out when he returned to LA, but I didn't have the heart to tell him. Part of me believes he knew it to, but no one wanted to admit it at my dining room table that night.

In August of 2014, he called me while I was at the gym. I remember because I stopped my workout to answer, not knowing what news I was going to be getting on the other end of the line. It had been almost 2 years, well past the 6 months he was given to live after his terminal diagnosis. He was planning a last minute trip to Cayman, and begging me to come. He casually mentioned that the cancer had spread to his hip bone, and I knew then what this trip was really about. Despite the offer of a month in Cayman, he couldn't have picked a worse time for me, and my going would not be possible. It was his farewell tour, and I could not make the ride.

With masses of cancer in his chest, he would no longer be allowed to dive. But with determination only he could have, he had found a way around it. I remember his fascination with free diving starting long before his diagnosis, almost like he had a back-up plan before he knew he would even need one. We shared a common interest in people who push their bodies to extremes, not knowing we would one day be sitting simultaneously in infusion chairs 2000 miles apart pushing our own bodies to extremes.

I think running gave me a glimpse into physical and mental endurance, and I liked it. I'm one of those people that not only loves to rise to the challenge, I know I have the mental-tenacity to welcome it. I think it has always been the root behind my reading preference for stories that involve extreme survival. During those first 2 years of chemo, when I could do nothing more than lay in a dark room, I remember telling myself that anything would be easier than this. I longed to return to the days when the pain and misery of physical endurance would pale in comparison to the sickness and misery of chemo. I told myself that I would be strong again, and I would channel all the sickness into an even greater desire for extreme accomplishment.

When people come to me facing no choice but a lifetime of chemo, I spin it into analogies that involve endurance sports. It's how I think, and how I relate to most challenges in life I guess. When you set out to do a long run, you can't think about mile 5 or mile 10 or mile 26, you have to consider the mile you are on and finishing it. If you focus too much on the many miles ahead, you will wear yourself out and the run will become mentally impossible. If you're training on hills, you can't look out at the rolling path ahead of you, but should focus on just the hill in front of you, the downside, and the recovering on the flats. One mile, one hill at a time. One round of chemo at a time.

I tell people it takes great mental tenacity and emotional stability to endure any challenge - cancer included.

I look at this photo every day on my phone, my desktop, in my office, and in my house. Here is a man with cancer overtaking his lungs, in his bones, and soon to be in his brain. Yet he took his pain and physical limitations and put it to an extreme test. It is my daily reminder that I can do anything despite cancer - I am doing everything despite cancer.

Ascending over the USS Kittiwake - Grand Cayman.

1 comment:

Carrie S. said...

What a great tribute to your friend!