Cancer never takes a vacation, but sometimes, if we are lucky enough, we can take a much-needed vacation from cancer.
I have always been a planner. With a childhood filled with uncertainty and trauma, planning became my way of gaining some sense—however elusive—of control over my life. And after a very memorable five-week camping trip to visit national parks across the country with my mom and siblings when I was 11, (If anyone ever wonders when I get my drive and sense of adventure, all they have to do is ask what single mom in her right mind would take three kids aged 4 to 12 on a camping adventure that required 600 miles a day of driving!) I learned the value of a well-planned vacation. The months of joyful anticipation, the comfort of knowing where we would sleep each night, shared memories of stress and barely-avoided disaster turned to hilarity when things didn’t quite work out as planned.
Of course, cancer shows us that we can’t plan, can’t control, can’t even be certain enough to anticipate. But even cancer couldn’t change my long-term habit of planning. In anticipation of the end of cancer treatment six years ago, I planned a vacation adventure for my family. The preparations gave me something to look forward to as the weeks of treatment wore on. The expected physical demands of the trip encouraged me to regain my strength and fitness quickly so I would be ready. My mouth watered for the food we would savor. My skin tingled in anticipation of the sun and the sweat (or maybe, from the chemo-induced neuropathy!) And years later, the smile-inducing memories live on.
So, two years ago when my daughter suggested we organize a vacation for a break she would have before becoming enslaved to a corporate life, we started planning. We mapped out every night, every hotel, every adventure and taste experience we wanted. We booked flights, hotels, cars. Marked restaurants we wanted to try. And smiled in anticipation of the glorious voyage we would soon be having.
Of course, COVID, like cancer, was a stark reminder that many things never happen as planned. It reinforced the message that we have no control over life, that plans are made to be cancelled, that we need to ebb and flow with the unpredictable course of life. We waited until the last minute, but finally, last August, had to cancel the trip. We longed for that journey, and as lockdowns lengthened and the pandemic lingered, the hope of an escape seemed all-the-more necessary, yet all-the-more out of reach.
This summer, at the last minute, we took that long anticipated vacation. My daughter was changing jobs and found herself with a break again. We were vaccinated and some travel seemed possible, so we took off. It was an abbreviated vacation, adapting some of the plans we had made to the new reality of what was open, safe, doable in this pandemic world. And it was every bit as wonderful as we had anticipated.
One of the best things about vacation in the heightened sense of being present—different sights, sounds, smells, tastes make it easier for us to experience each new sensation. Vacation days seem so much fuller because we experience many more of the moments rather than glazing over. So many times, while driving on familiar roads, we tune out, and then ask upon arrival, how did I get here. Yet when traveling in foreign territory, you can’t help but pay attention. The scenery is new, the road signs are different (and often hilarious) and sensations are heightened. We were in Sicily, tracing old family ties, and the sun, and sand and food and sights were all so different, it felt like every moment was a meditation on the senses.
As Jon Kabot-Zinn famously said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And we felt that, every moment. Here we are at the beach and in the sun. Here we are, at a 2500-year-old temple. Here we are, walking down a street eating gelato. Here we are, where my great grandparents lived and died. Here we are, eating food that tastes so familiar and yet so different.
Two weeks later, back at JFK and waiting hours for our luggage to finally appear, I found it challenging to maintain that sense of presence. Do I really want to see and smell the inside of an overcrowded airport terminal? Anxious to be home and with my husband and son and dog again, can I be patient when I have been traveling for more than 24 hours? How can I carry some of that vacation awareness into everyday life? How can I continue to live each moment as if it were a vacation moment? Can I learn to surf the waves of stress that overtake us all?
The Inner Life
Since my cancer diagnosis, I have become more aware of the gift of life, the beauty around me, the joy of love and laughter. It is my goal to spend less time multitasking and more time being present for whatever it is I am doing. But I don’t always succeed. One of the things that has been so challenging about COVID is the sameness of life, the predictability of day-to-day existence under lockdown and restrictions. The reduced interactions with other people, the reduced chance for the random encounter that makes you think about life differently. It is hard to stay present in a moment that seems just like the ones you have lived through already.
But the inner life is always different. Whether brushing my teeth, or supporting a patient I am mentoring through cancer, or caring for my mom, now 95 and confined to memories of past adventures, there is the opportunity to be mindful, to stay present, to feel what I feel and listen to what others tell me about their feelings. Being on vacation helped refresh my sense of the present, my ability to stay in the moment.
I know that I can’t count on cancer to never come back. And after the Delta variant upset everyone’s COVID expectations, I know that I can’t even make assumptions about daily life. But I can be here now, I can feel what I feel, I can be aware of the moment. And, while cancer takes a vacation away from me, I can begin to anticipate my next vacation away from cancer. I’ll never stop being a planner, but hopefully, I’ve learned to be a little less attached to the plans I make, and a little less disappointed when they don’t turn out as anticipated. So, where should I go next?