When I went through chemotherapy ten years ago, I kept a journal. Today, on the day before I start “Round Two – Ten Years Later,” I thought I’d dig it up and see what was on my mind. Here’s what I found:
Sunday, July 13, 2003
It’s the night before my chemotherapy begins. What am I thinking about?
How badly will it kick my ass?
Will there be any long term effects?
How bad will Nick and Tony be frightened?
How bad will I be frightened?
Will it even work?
I can’t dwell on this last question too long. It has to work. It’s important that I stay positive about the whole thing. I know I’m tough and that I’ve got a lot to live for. I also know that I’ve had it pretty fucking easy for all these years, so maybe I’m due for a little suffering. That’s fine—that’s life, and I accept it. I don’t think that my kids are due for any suffering, though.
When I think about dying, I think about the people I’ll leave behind and how devastated they’ll be. But I’m too arrogant—or stupid?—to think that I’ll really die. I’ll probably feel so shitty that I’ll wish I was dead, but I do believe I’m going to come out of this OK.
Other than surviving, I hope that I come out changed in some way. I want to learn something from all this, other than a bunch of tired clichés like life is fragile, you never know what might come next, blah blah blah bullshit bullshit bullshit. I know all this already. Maybe what I’m hoping for is some perspective. Or something about fear.
The bottom line is that I’ve never really faced a struggle, and I’m anxious to see how I’ll do.
Turned out that my thoughts were pretty on target.
There was an incident during my second week of treatment—a severe allergic reaction to one of the drugs I was given—that sent me to the ER and left me feeling so shitty that I did, in fact, want to die (a story for another time, readers).
I came out changed, too, and it had everything in the world to do with perspective. My bout with cancer set in motion a lot of changes in my life and led me straight to the seat of my bicycle and a two-month journey across the country. Since I finished that three years ago, I’ve been working on my book (That Hidden Road) about the ride, about cancer, about a lot of things. Now comes the tricky part of convincing a publisher that people might find it interesting.
And I did learn something about fear. Or rather, I thought I learned it but didn’t know until just recently whether it was true. When I came out the other side ten years ago, I told myself and anyone who was interested that I never expected to be that frightened for myself again.
Sure, when my doctor told me the news a few weeks ago, my first feeling was that I was in an elevator whose cable had snapped. But the shock didn’t last too long, and what replaced it was calmness. I thought that I was in some kind of denial, but the calmness has stuck with me over these weeks, and it has a voice, too, that’s been telling me You’ve been here before (well, not the surgery, but still), you know what you’re in for, and you know what you didn’t know before—you can handle a struggle. There’s no new fear here.
When I saw my students last week, I told them that cancer is a shitty thing any way you look at it, but one thing I took from it was self-knowledge. Cancer taught me something about myself that I suspected but didn’t really know until it came along to show me: I’m a survivor.