The Art of Being Patient: Stop, Shut Up & Listen

smiling baby

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience."

I have no patience for patience. Or at least I didn't historically.

Learning to be patient, to sit still until the right path illuminated itself, has been a lifelong struggle for me. In the past, I've grown impatient with waiting and tried to force solutions. And in hindsight, my attempts to speed along things have sometimes resulted in messiness. I've learned that forcing things is generally never a good idea.

Cancer is a great teacher in the art of being patient.


With a cancer diagnosis -- or the diagnosis of any type of potentially curable or treatable disease -- one often has no choice but just to wait.

To wait and see if surgery is successful; to find out if the surgeon "got it all."

To wait and see if treatment is successful; to find out whether or not the disease responded to aggressive drugs.

To wait and see if remission lasts, or if the disease comes back.

Lots of waiting. And the things for which we are waiting "to see" are no small potatoes. We're talking life or death stuff here.

It's been exactly six months since I was diagnosed with cancer. And in that six months, I've learned a lot about waiting ... a lot about being patient. I've had no choice.

Of course, as soon as I heard the news, I wanted this to be "over," and started counting the days until I would be on the other side of treatment and "cancer free."

I now know that the term "cancer free" is a a bit of a misnomer. One is never truly cancer free. Instead, the best for which one can hope is to be deemed as having No Evidence of Disease, or NED. And to keep NED in the house for the rest of one's life.

I was a Nancy Drew fan as a young girl, and NED makes me think of Ned Nickerson, Nancy's affable and reliable, non-sexual boyfriend. Ned is someone you'd like to have around. He's non-threatening and always ready to help in a pinch. One feels better when Ned is around.

I hope that I end up with Ned. 

But as I approach the end of scheduled treatment, it turns out that when this is "over," I may not have the answers I was seeking. I may very well end up sitting in the discomfort of the unknown. And I'm going to have to learn to be okay with that.

I went into this thinking that I'd have as much of the cancer removed as possible, and obliterate the rest with aggressive chemotherapy. Done and done. It turns out that, because cancer is such a crafty bitch, chemotherapy doesn't always work. Sometimes (as much as a third of the time), it has no impact at all.

So I've been thinking that either these 24 sessions of chemotherapy will have worked, or they won't. But my oncologist is now preparing me for a third option: uncertainty.

Thirty days after my last treatment, I'll have a series of CT scans and blood work that will tell us if (a) there is any remaining evidence of cancer, including new cancer; (b) if there is no evidence of cancer at all (i.e., affable Ned Nickerson is in the house); or (c) whether or not there are potentially questionable spots that could turn into something. Or not.

Knowing the way my life goes, I'm preparing myself for the third option. Because it would be just like the universe to give yet another challenge to teach me more about patience.

What I now know (at least intellectually) is that time spent waiting is not wasted. And there are great lessons for me to learn in times of stillness if I'll just stop, shut up, and listen.

If I have some questionable spots inside me after six months of treatment, there will not be much I can do besides wait to see what comes of them. Now, I can certainly take the best possible care of myself during this time, and savor every damn moment along the way ... but I can't force an answer on my timetable.

So my challenge -- no matter what the results of my post-treatment testing -- is going to be to continue to stay in the present. To not live in fear for what might happen, but to enjoy every minute of every day as much as possible.

My husband and I took our daughter to her pediatrician this week for her six-month checkup. During our visit, Maggie's doctor told us that Maggie had reached the age where she now realized that we, her parents, are "permanent." We weren't just two of many large loud blobs who came and went in and out of her periphery ... we were here to stay.

I started to choke up as she said this. Because the cynical mini-me sitting on my shoulder immediately scoffed at the use of the word "permanent," whispering in my ear, "Your days with this little girl are numbered."

But I can't go there. The truth is that none of us knows what tomorrow holds. Any one of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow, or live to be 101. We just don't know.

And I am learning to be okay with that today. 


Photo via Mark Montgomery

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