I had another cancer scare this past week. A doozy.
When I went for my first three-month cancer check, I learned that my CA-125 levels -- that's the cancer marker -- had quintupled since they were checked just three months prior. Not good.
My oncologist immediately ordered CT scans of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis. She said there was a chance that the spike in my levels was due to inflammation from a scar revision surgery I had six weeks earlier. The only other explanation was that the cancer was back. And we all knew what that meant.
If the cancer was back this soon after stopping treatment, it meant that it was platinum-resistant and that more chemotherapy would be ineffective. And radiation or surgery would not be options, given the type and location of my cancer.
Essentially, I'd be fucked.
I went for CT scans the following day, and then there was nothing to do but wait. It was very difficult for me to keep my head and feet in the same place during these couple of days. I admit I was pretty frightened. I started thinking of all of the things I'd need to do to "get ready" to leave my daughter and family.
There's an amazing young man in Vancouver, Canada, who is documenting his last days as he dies of brain cancer. One of the things he has done for his two young children is to write letters to be given to each of them on their birthdays until they are adults.
The prospect of this seemed overwhelming to me, and not just because of the dying part. How does one sit down and write 30 or 40 meaningful letters, to be given to loved ones in the future? How could I make each one different and interesting and timely without starting to repeat myself? And how could I even get through such a task emotionally? The prospect was both exhausting and heartbreaking. I'm someone who puts off packing for a trip until the last minute and I'm supposed throw together a wise and poignant legacy to last my daughter a lifetime?
Then I remembered the list I had been keeping for my daughter. I posted a random sampling of life lessons from this list in a column several months ago, but never finished it. So I thought I'd list a few more. Just in case. If nothing else, they are good reminders for me. So, here goes:
Use your voice. Don't be afraid to speak up. To say what you really want or express how you really feel; to protect someone else; to point out injustice. And don't be afraid to ask questions. There have been many times I've been afraid to speak out, often for the silliest of reasons. These times have resulted in everything from a bad haircut or a wasted evening to feelings of loss or regret. However, I've rarely regretted speaking my truth, as long as it came from a good place.
Treasure your friendships. I happened to be at the home of a dear friend recently as her daughter and two of her daughter's closest friends were getting ready for their first dance. They were laughing and giggling and helping each other fix their hair and choose their outfits. My friend said, "If I can only give you girls one piece of advice, it would be to always hold on to this ... what you have right here." I chimed in and said, "That's right ... boys will come and go, but your girlfriends can last forever." And it's so true. The older I've gotten, the more grateful I've become for the kindred spirits that have graced my path. They bring me more joy and comfort than I can express.
Don't be afraid to accept help. As women, we are so programmed to say, "Oh, I'm fine" or "No, thanks" when offered help. To be stoic and capable. Wonder women. And God forbid we ever come right out and ask for help. If I've learned nothing else through this process of being sick, it's that there is something both courageous and freeing about admitting that I need help. And saying "No, thank you" when I really mean "Oh, yes, please!" is not only making things unnecessarily difficult for myself, it's very likely depriving someone else of the joy and satisfaction of helping someone in need. A lose-lose.
Look at your own part. Rarely, if ever, is a dispute entirely the fault of one party. It's hard to do sometimes, but I've learned to ask myself "What was my part in that?" when involved in a conflict. Often, my part may be as simple as having unrealistic or unvoiced expectations. Or maybe I played an even bigger role. But owning my own part in any given situation is often a relief, and helps prevent me from carrying resentments ... something that only hurts me in the long run.
Know your worth. I'm a people pleaser from way back, and have historically failed to adequately value myself on a number of occasions. This has led to my accepting unacceptable behavior from others. Or giving too much of myself to someone who did not truly know or value me as a person. Or overextending myself to the point that it became unhealthy for me. We are all valuable as humans. If we don't value ourselves, how can we expect others to value us?
Fortunately, I got (mostly) good news as a result of my CT scans. There was no visible sign of disease. So, this either means that the spike in my CA-125 level was the result of my last surgery or that there is new cancer that is just too small yet to detect on CT. My oncologist won't know that until she checks my levels again in a month.
So, again. Nothing to do but wait. And try to keep my ass and head in the same place. And be grateful for every single moment.
In the meantime, I'm curious. If you could pass only on one lesson to your children, what would it be?
Image via Mark Montgomery