I have often said: “Life has a way of getting in the way of itself.” I had been implying that life plans don’t necessarily work out due to the vagaries of life itself. In my wife’s case, a more literal interpretation is fitting. A DNA replication error set in place a rapid cell duplication process resulting in invasive ductal carcinoma. Her breast cancer, this life gone amok, has taken center stage.
Talk about a game changer – this changes everything. In my role as a psychologist I long ago became acutely aware of just how wrong things can go in life, and these professional experiences solidified in me the importance of appreciating the things that go well. It has also instilled in me the knowledge that absolutely nothing is permanent. But this cancer diagnosis has taken this enlightenment to a whole new level.
Thomas Hobbes once noted, “… the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Historically, this has been true for many of our ancestors, and it remains true for many today. Such is not the case for many of us who have been fortunate to be born into a time and place where survival is not an everyday struggle. But when facing a diagnosis of cancer, Hobbes’ perspective seems particularly cogent. I can only imagine how true this perspective must be for Kimberly. Although her family surrounds her with love and support, only she alone, faces the scaring scalpel and the life sucking chemotherapy.
In the vast configuration of things, we all know that she is not alone. Many people go through this, but none of those near and dear to her, know what she endures and fears. Life for her has temporarily, and most certainly, become at times, nasty and brutish. There is an ebb and flow to this process, but the difficult times rob her of the many activities that filled her with zest. Even at relatively good times, her quality of life is a poor reflection of what it had been. Often food is less tasty, if desirable at all. Restful sustained sleep is hard to come by and endurance and fortitude seem to be a thing of the past: as is her gorgeous full head of hair. It’s one thing to be a man and gradually lose one’s hair over a period of decades (I know it well). It’s quite another to be a woman and leave a trail of hair where ever you go. And really feeling good – it’s an occasional visitor that does not stick around long. I know this is torturous for her. It breaks my heart.
On the plus side, there is the reality that this life-run-amok has changed perspectives and brought our family closer together. From my point of view, it has brought into focus what really matters in life. It has freed us from the banal fruitless issues du jour.
But underneath this greater closeness is a universal fear. We all share it, but I am certain that it resonates deeper in Kimberly’s mind. The fear is: “What if this isn’t over?” We have no certain answers, but the statistics are on her side. Long term survival is the norm. This is one form of cancer that science and medicine has effectively constrained.
Her chemo is a preventative measure, not one aimed at eking out a few months or years. With this in mind, I try to frame this phase of treatment within the context of a physical challenge. One of our favorite activities is riding our tandem bicycle. We don’t just get on a clunky unwieldy tandem and leisurely putz around town. We ride a high tech machine and we ride it hard and fast. A typical ride covers 20 to 30 miles and often involves ascending some of the biggest hills in our area. These climbs are often long and brutal – requiring a special focus and tenacity. The reward however, is the effortless descent that is sweeter for the effort that made it possible. Over the next few months we will be climbing a new and even more difficult hill – struggling as we go. We shall strive to endure it for the rewards on the other side. We will make it.
And once we reach the top, it is my sincerest hope that all of us who have fought this battle with Kimberly will make the best of the rest of the ride. Life, with or without cancer, is short and exceptionally precious. This experience has certainly and deservedly taken center stage, but it has also put a spotlight on what is truly meaningful. The other stuff is just clutter. Meanwhile, the slow arduous slog continues – and we endeavor upward with anticipation of the sweet descent. All the while we take solace in the warm glow of love that sustains us and powers us up and ever onward.