It’s safe to say I never imagined a stage IV cancer diagnosis at age 36. I certainly never could have imagined cancer of the bile ducts–or cholangiocarcinoma–largely because I’d never heard of “bile ducts” before this. But that’s just the beginning of a growing list of experiences and thoughts — and a level of gratitude — that I never could have anticipated before these little terrorist tumors decided to set up their caliphate in my torso. Okay, in all fairness, some of these terrorist tumors are quite large and like to remind me of their menacing presence by pushing against my abdominal wall like a baby might if your baby was ISIS, your liver was Raqqa, and your lungs were Mosul.
These experiences run the gamut from godawful-lowest-point-of-my-existence to feeling utterly bathed in light and love, with a considerable number of bizarre highlights scattered in between.
Oh, the Love!
It is an unfortunate truth that you never realize how loved you are by so many until something frighteningly awful happens. The flood of goodwill and encouragement, offers to help, and gifts, gifts, gifts have been staggering. Never did I think I would be the proud owner of so much organic loose leaf tea! My poor husband who hates nothing more than a build up of shipping boxes and bubble wrap has struggled, but I’ve delighted in each and every hand-delivered, Amazon, FedEx, and USPS care package. It’s not so much about the soft blankets, socks, teas, books, jewelry, lavender essential oils, or organic weight gain shakes that I’ve scored (yeah…can you believe people gift me with something that has “weight gain” as its goal and I actually consume it?). It’s the fresh infusion of positive energy, of love and faith and encouragement, of rehashed memories of good times shared years and years ago when cancer was still something that happened to other people.
My tears fall not because I feel sorry for myself, but because I cannot contain all the love I feel reading and hearing the heartfelt words of friends and family near and far who’ve suited up to fight this battle by my and my husband’s side–this insta-army, ready at a moment’s notice to parachute in and take the fight to the enemy. And, no, I’m not letting go of this war-fighting metaphor anytime soon. I married a Green Beret, and I’m therefore legally allowed to appropriate his lingo for times like these when it really is us versus a hostile invader.
Oh…There’s a Hose in My Ass.
Speaking of hostile invaders, I did some research as soon as I was diagnosed with ISIS of the bile ducts. Somewhere in that research, a “colon hydrotherapy” session was recommended as part of a holistic approach to healing. My organic weight gain shake consumption and elimination of coffee from my daily routine were also not helping to keep the trains running out of town, as it were. Now was the time to try something different, something bold, something gently inserted into my anus.
I loved the woman who would be performing this act the moment I met her. She was warm and kind and genuinely wanted to help me in any way she could. I could tell by her generous use of petroleum jelly. She set me up on a slightly downward slanted table, which was essentially a horizontal toilet with a pillow, turned on the water and left me to my “cleansing” with the promise of checking in on me from time to time over the next 45 minutes. I have too much class (can’t you tell?) to describe in detail what those next 45 minutes were like, but I will just say this: there was a gold framed mirror strategically angled at the end of the slanted table toilet so I could monitor what was being flushed out of me through a large, clear pipe with sepia-like lighting.
I felt like this could’ve been an exhibit at the Guggenheim– a new movement, if you will, in the modern art world for which certain types of people would probably pay big money. Has anyone ever seen the Yoko Ono exhibit at the Guggenheim in Bilbao? I’d pay to see my own shit in a tube before I ever paid for that “art.” Fair warning: I may one day open a gallery filled with gaudy gold framed snapshots of what used to be taking up space in my bowels. Get those checkbooks ready.
Oh, I Just Told a Bartender/Barista/Grocery Bagger I Have Cancer.
Despite having no shortage of friends and family members to talk to, I find myself telling random strangers somewhat regularly. It makes sense when I’m at the hospital getting tests or blood work done. “Why are you getting this endoscopy (down your throat) and colonoscopy (up the other end) today, Mrs. Hayes?” I thought about answering “because it’s been a while since I’ve been roofied at a frat party,” but instead I answered “because I have cancer.”
Then there’ve been times when I’ve shared it, wholly unsolicited and unplanned. Like the night my husband and I walked into a bar after hearing my doctor drop the “stage IV” bomb and what it meant for the first time. We slumped down in our bar stools. Jamie ordered a beer, and I ordered a green tea. “Just a tea for you?” the hipster side-burned bartender asked. “Unless you have something back there that cures cancer, yep, just the tea,” I said, then immediately apologized. “I’m sorry. I’m having a weird day.” He looked at me, stunned, not knowing what to say before walking away.
When he returned with our drinks, he offered me an array of options to jazz up my tea. “How about some lemon? A little bit of cream? A cinnamon stick?” I agreed to the cinnamon stick, and then he asked, eyes full of compassion, “do you mind me asking, were you just diagnosed?” I told him I was. I told him the type. I told him the stage. I told him what I knew at that point about my treatment plan. I told him it was a shitty time to not be able to order a good, strong drink. He agreed and brought me more cinnamon. He kept Jamie’s IPA supply flowing and convinced us to stay for dinner. By the time we left, he was our friend, our supporter, a stranger-turned-battle buddy.
Then there was the surly Starbucks barista. I’ve encountered him many times at my neighborhood Starbucks (actually one of four Starbucks in my neighborhood). I knew asking him if there was organic milk or unsweetened soy for my green tea latte would really chap his already chapped ass, so I strategically threw down the cancer card. “You see, I wouldn’t be so high maintenance, but I just found out I have cancer, so I’m trying to do the organic thing and no-added-sugar thing,” I explained. He softened enough to agree to look for such substances, but returned empty handed. “Thank you for looking. I’ll just take the regular milk,” I said, to which he replied, “yeah, my mom had cancer. She died.” Touché, Surly Starbucks Barista. Touché.
Oh, All That’s to Come!
I realize the road ahead will not always be love and light and shitting masterpieces, but in the less-than-one-month I’ve had to digest this, I’ve realized there is more to be grateful for than to feel badly about. I’ve realized that getting chemo can actually be a really relaxing way to pass five hours while people are nice to you and bring you snacks and trashy magazines. And, most importantly, I’ve realized that letting in all the love you can handle–whether from your family, friends, neighbors, or a stranger you’ve just met–makes it all a little more bearable. Just stay away from that little troll at the Starbucks on N. Washington Street.
Peace, love, and f&#k cancer.