A lot can change in six months.
You can go from diagnosis to NED, even if still bald and fighting fatigue. You can go from hopeful to helpless in the face of overwhelming disease. And you can go from certainty and plans to a total relinquishment of control. And while cancer makes these transitions stark for many of us, COVID has shown that other external forces can drive our lives as well. Who would have imagined six months ago what life today is like?
As Kevin said of supporting his wife through her battle with lung cancer, “It was this constant, iterative process of bargaining, where what you hope for changes and changes and changes again. It’s an ongoing process of renegotiating with the impossible.” I’ll just wear a mask and wash my hands a lot for a few weeks. I just won’t go into the office for a while. I’ll just lock myself in the house for a few months. This will all be over soon.
It is so easy to live our lives thinking we have control. If I work hard and get good grades I can go to a good college and my life will be set. If I please the boss with this project I can get a promotion and then my career will be golden. It I teach my kids good values, they will make sound judgements and never get in trouble. Who among us hasn’t learned the hard way that assumptions we make about life are not carved in stone and that the straight line we assumed from action to result can be twisted and broken by life? Or, as the old Yiddish proverb proclaims, “Man plans, and God laughs.”
Many people have their illusions burst early in life—challenging circumstances mean they never assume a sense of control, or at least, not broadly. And at the other extreme are those who think their thoughts and desires control the world, many of whom end up in psychiatric care. But for those of us somewhere in between who tend to feel we have agency, that we have can influence the circumstances of our own lives, cancer makes it hard to deny: we have far less control than we think.
Cancer taught me that I can think, and I can act, but I can’t control. Maybe my actions can influence, maybe my thoughts and ideas can guide, but that’s about it. Part of the grief of cancer is coming to terms with that loss of control, giving up the fantasy that life will go your way. Like a child discovering there is no Santa Claus, being disillusioned of that sense of control is heartbreaking.
But what I’ve slowly come to understand is that there is a difference between letting go, accepting and giving up. For me, letting go means relinquishing the old expectations I had of myself, my life and the future. Accepting means recognizing what the reality is today—it may not stay that way for even the day, but understanding what my body, my mind, the world is today and realizing that that is what I have to work with. But letting go and accepting are not giving up/ This is not a hopeless state but a realistic one.
I have always enjoyed being physically active. Before my cancer diagnosis, I ran regularly. Not far, not fast, but predictably. While I tried to maintain that during treatment (after my surgeon said it was safe for me to resume) I found that I couldn’t maintain the same pace, run the same distance or even think about the same frequency. It was hard for me to let go of the expectations, but one look at my red blood cell count and it was easy to see why it was necessary to do so.
Even after my blood counts normalized, I didn’t have the same motivations and allowed cancer to be my excuse. My heart wasn’t in it, even if my body could have resumed, and for a while, I gave up, demoralized at the prospect of never being able to regain the fitness and fun I once enjoyed. However, it was only after I had relinquished old expectations and accepted that my body is five years older, has been through trauma, and that the only one who expected it to behave as it did before was me, that I began to enjoy running again. Now I remind myself, I may be slow, but I’m beating cancer.
Entering the sixth month of the pandemic, these same lessons resonate. I miss my old life. The easy camaraderie of friendships structured around shared activities. The joy of the unexpected encounter. The bustle of the city, as full of energy and people as it is noise and hassle. And while I have spent months mourning the loss of that old life, I have finally let it go. All the wishing won’t make it so. It will be a while before we all get back a semblance of what life used to be.
Six Months Later
Accepting this new reality allows me to settle into it, to find ways to make it work for me, and find the joy in doing things I never would have done before. It’s subtle, like going from resenting the imposition of cooking dinner seven days a week after the easy access to restaurant dining and delivery, to being inspired to try new recipes and foods, because I have the time to explore. But it’s palpable, and I feel my breath come a little easier, my jaw unclench, my shoulders relax as that acceptance takes hold.
I’m not giving up. Six months have passed and I look forward to the day when I can plan again, travel, go to the theater, and freely hug my friends—boy do I miss hugs. But for now, recognizing that I have no control over any of that, I will take it one day at a time. Today. This day. It’s a beautiful day. I think I’ll go for a slow and joyous run.