I’m passionate about playing tennis. I love the way it requires my mind and body to be fully engaged, taking me away from normal life stresses. I love the way it feels after I have played hard and I walk off the court exhausted and exhilarated. And I love the way my friends and I laugh when we play, the easy camaraderie of shared passion and sport. I love tennis enough so that I really didn’t want to give it because I had cancer. So, with my doctor’s blessing, I was back on the court a few weeks after surgery, and only missed a few weekends during treatment.
Tennis was a marker of my progress through cancer. There was the day, a few weeks after I started chemo, when I could see tufts of hair flying from my head as I ran for a ball, telling me it was time to shave my balding pate. There were the weeks I played wearing a baseball cap or beanie so as not to freak out the kids on the next court. The weeks when I would let pass any ball that didn’t come right to me because I didn’t have the energy to move. The weeks as chemo was nearly finished when the neuropathy in my feet made tennis shoes of any kind too uncomfortable to wear. And, I knew I was regaining my strength again when I could chase down a ball, play an hour, then 90 minutes, then two hours of tennis again, even if it meant taking a nap later.
Just as tennis was instrumental to my physical recovery, it played an important role in my emotional process as well. During the 20 years I’ve been playing, I’ve worked with many coaches who have tried to cure me of bad habits and teach me new skills, with mixed results, but there is one who’s voice still sounds in my head when I’m on the court. Only recently did I realize his simple reminders—sometimes banal, at other times prophetic—are really life instructions that were powerful prompts for dealing with the emotional turmoil of cancer, too.
“Keep your eye on the ball.”
Well, duh. You can’t hit what you don’t see. And if you are looking at the lines, or your opponent, or the hawk that just flew overhead, you can’t actually see the ball. It’s easy to get distracted, whether in the excitement of the game, or with the rush of information and emotions when dealing with cancer. But the end goal was to beat cancer, so I had to stay focused. Remembering to take a deep breath and keep my goal in mind helped me push aside my fears, my frustrations about my inability to plan more than a week, or even a day, in advance, and push past my fatigue. Just focus and hit the damn ball, Cynthia. This is a game you really want to win.
“Play the ball that’s hit to you.”
This one also seems obvious, but it’s really about recognizing the truth. You may want to hit a forehand, but you’ve been dealt a backhand, so hit a backhand. Tackle the challenge before you, even if it is not what you want. This was hard. While I am not one to back down from any challenge, cancer was not one I ever imagined. And I was scared, of the disease and the treatment. It would have been so easy to crawl under the blankets. But you can’t hide from cancer. I couldn’t ignore my diagnosis, couldn’t skip chemo, had to go through the ordeal. So, I dragged myself to the chemo suite, to my desk to try to work, to the gym to try to recover. I had been hit a curve ball, and I had to hit it back.
“Don’t overthink it.”
While you want to make sure you have your head in the game, when you overthink it, you’re apt to do something stupid. Really a corollary to “play the ball that’s hit to you,” this is a reminder to rely on instinct and training rather than in-the-moment analysis. And as someone who loves to think and research and analyze, this is my danger zone. On the court, it’s inevitable that if I think in advance about where I want to place the ball, I screw it up. And I certainly researched and thought my way into a panic when I first learned errant cells were detected by my Pap test. I was convinced I was dying of cancer before I had even been diagnosed! My optimistic instincts and training to ask questions before jumping to conclusions would have served me better.
“Never do with your hands what you can do with our feet.”
This is really about being prepared. In tennis, if you don’t get your body into position, you end up having to do something funky with your stroke to compensate, risking lack of control and potential injury. Being prepared also allowed me to manage cancer a little bit better. It comforted me to know what recovery from laparoscopic vs. open surgery would be like even if only one of them would apply (unfortunately, the latter). It helped to stock the refrigerator and clean the house on chemo days when the steroids, and energy, ran high, so that there would be broth and clean dishes for the days when I crashed. And it helped me to know each time I went for a cancer antigen blood test that the numbers always bounce around, that a single test result in the wrong direction didn’t mean my cancer was back. I can’t prepare for every possibility, but when the ball is hit to me, I can move my feet and be ready to get it back.
“Don’t hit it into the net.”
As if I did that on purpose. But, as irritating as it is to hear, it’s a good reminder to relax and avoid the self-sabotaging errors that come from trying too hard. And there were plenty of ways to sabotage myself while dealing with cancer. I could push myself too hard and be exhausted for days. And I could second guess my medical team and spin a disaster tale in my head that kept me awake all night. I could try too hard to control everything and instead generate chaos for myself and others. Or, I could relax, avoid unnecessary mistakes and do my part to advance the game. There are good shots and bad shots, good days and bad days, but you keep playing, you don’t dwell on the last point but instead get ready for the next.
“Make them hit another ball.”
You never know what might happen if you just keep the ball in play. Sometimes you think you’ve lost the point, but you make an extra push and get it back and win the point instead. Sometimes, it would be so much easier to just let the ball go, especially when you’ve tried so hard already. Sometimes you simply can’t imagine going through one more round of treatment, especially when it has failed, and cancer has returned. But you never know what new treatment might work, so rather than assuming the worst, you keep the ball in play. So far, I’ve been lucky, but as Jim, who is battling stage 4 cancer, put it, “I have to hang in there long enough for the new drugs to prove effective.” He’s making them hit another ball.
“Talk to your partner.”
In doubles, your partner is often out of sight and if you don’t tell her what you’re doing, what you want from her, she can’t possibly know how to support you. If you’re at the net and the ball is going over your head, you call out ‘help” and she will do her best to get it. Same in cancer. If I didn’t tell my husband I felt scared, was anxious about an upcoming scan, worried about chemo-brain, feeling depressed and uncertain, how could I expect him to be there for me? It’s so easy to feel isolated, and hard for anyone who hasn’t gone through it to understand. But I learned the hard way to play doubles. Rather than sulking after the fact at some perceived slight because he didn’t do or say what I wanted him to, I told him what I needed, and he was delighted to help. He wanted to, but didn’t know how until I let him in. Cancer is a doubles game. We all need a little help sometimes, no matter how independent we think we are. And there are people who are happy to help, we just have to tell them how.
With the warm weather, tennis season will soon be in full swing. There are still times when I feel I haven’t regained my stamina, or lost the steroid weight I gained. But I’m healthy, and I’m hitting hard, and on the best days, I’m channeling my inner Serena. Not that I’m anywhere near that good. But I’ve got my head raised, my arm outstretched. I’m confident, powerful, ready to serve the ball back to whatever opponent I face, even if it’s cancer again.