Into the Woods

Sidelined from the tennis courts by a wrist injury (was it too much top spin or too much typing and texting?) I’ve been forced to find other activities for exercise and fun, ones that don’t involve using my hands. Biking? Out of the question. Kayaking or canoeing? No way. Yoga? Not yet. My doctor was quite firm about the required rest and limited my options to foot-based activities only. So, when it’s too hot to run, that pretty much leaves hiking. 

After an ambitious hike the day before, we opted for a more mellow adventure today, circumnavigating a lake near my house — a three-mile walk on dirt roads and through the woods, up and down rolling hills. When we set off, the air was warm, but not yet sticky. Long pants, long-sleeved shirt, hat, boots — necessary to keep the ticks and brambles away — were still tolerable. Moving at a swift but comfortable pace, we climbed uphill for nearly a mile, quickly covering the first stretch of road until it petered out at the driveway of a distant cabin, and stepped into the woods.

There, the air was still in the dense shade of oak and ash. The smell of the rotting leaves that littered the forest floor, the call and response of the birds and tree toads that acknowledged our presence with alarm, invited us into a secluded world, beyond the horizon of daily life.

Bush-whacking Through Cancer

Dense woods and unmarked trails.

As in many of life’s adventures, the path, if it really was a path, was hard to follow. It seemed to disappear in the fallen foliage and broken branches that littered the ground. Was it an intentional trail? Or only a clearing made by deer as they traveled in search of food? I took the lead, a position that has its advantages. You get to set the pace and chose the path. But the price you pay is the spider webs you can’t see but suddenly feel across your face and neck, some like sturdy ropes rather than the fine silk they purport to be. And, you have to decide. Should we turn left, or right? Where does the trail resume again after this clump of bushes? Will this get me where I need to be?

Bush-whacking through the undergrowth reminded me of finding my path through cancer. There is so much uncertainty, and yet the need for constant decisions. Whose advice should I seek? Which doctor should I choose? Which protocol should I follow? Should I join a clinical trial? Can I work through treatment? How will I feel? Once I settled on a care team, the path became clearer, but there were still so many unknowns.

Hazards in the Woods

Similarly, I knew I couldn’t get too lost in the woods. Just as I trusted my doctors to guide me through my care, I knew that by keeping the lake a comfortable distance to the left — always within sight, but never so close that we risked losing our footing on the sharp rocks that litter the shore — I would find my way through the darkness, over the creek and eventually gain the far grassy shore. Still, I was never sure the path I chose was one trodden by others, if it was the best one to take, if it was the one that would ensure the optimal results.

We zigged to the left to avoid a steep drop-off, picked up some blue mylar balloons that were half buried in the brown leaves but so far from ever blending in, zagged to the right to find a crossing upstream that might keep our feet dry, stepped around poison ivy and swatted at mosquitos. The hazards of the woods, like the side effects of treatment, are varied and often hidden, but abundant and unpredictable. (Hours after safely returning home and showering, I discovered a deer tick biting me at the hairline — a dangerous freeloader who had prevailed against all my precautions.) 

On the far side of the lake, the woods became less dense, but with greater sunlight reaching the forest floor, the underbrush was lush and thorny, obscuring any trail that might have been visible only a year earlier and creating new threats to avoid. And we found ourselves stepping over holes, some barely visible, others nearly a foot in diameter, wondering what danger might lurk within. A snake? Or only a cute little chipmunk? A beaver? Or a more threatening coyote? 

The Next Adventure

Fallen elm tree riddled with woodpecker holes

Eventually, the path became more distinct and the sights mere curiosities rather than threats. We climbed over a crumbling stone wall and wondered who built it and when. We passed a woodpecker hotel and speculated on its progression from a healthy elm, felled by bark beetles before it reached full size, and now riddled with holes. And we moved closer to the lake as we made our way towards a well-traveled grassy path that led back on the road.

So too, my path to recovery. With each passing month, the distance between me and the darkest moments of my fear increases. My anxiety has turned to curiosity and the road ahead is no longer threatening, giving me the freedom to look back with academic interest at the perils I passed along the way.

Cancer is never a walk in the woods, but like bush-whacking through a threatening and unfamiliar forest, we do the best we can and hope we emerge in the sunlight. We can never know if we’ve made the very best decisions, chosen the perfect path through treatment. But as my journey around the lake reminds me, if you reach the clearing and can once again hike the road home, then there’s no need to second guess yourself. Rather, it’s important to enjoy the sunlight, and prepare for the next adventure, whatever it may be.

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