In the cacophony of the city, where I sit between a mega-tall construction site whose permit woes were recently rescinded allowing activity to restart, and the park maintenance crew with their spring wood chipping machines in full assault, with sirens piercing and traffic honking, the persistence of a mockingbird breaks through. For the past few days, as the spring mating season begins, a lone male perches on a nearby roofline and sings. True to his name, he starts by mimicking city sounds, but then rotates through a selection of calls and songs to announce himself, signal to a mate, and delight the listening ears of those of us finally able to throw open the windows after a cold and nasty winter.
That mockingbird reminds me of the search for resilience after a cancer ordeal. We need to break through the noise of cancer—perhaps living in and repeating that noise ourselves for a while—before eventually finding our own voices. Along the way, we try on different means of expression, different ways of living, with the freedom to change and change again, and the persistence to keep at it until we find peace with the reality of life post cancer diagnosis.
Julia*, whose ovarian cancer will never truly be gone, is finding her strength through questions and exploration of mind body healing. Three years past diagnosis and in a clinical trial that seems to be keeping the disease under control, she wants to know everything about what she can do to quiet her mind, relieve the stress that comes with uncertainty, and ensure her immune system is ready to tackle whatever may come next.
She has incorporated Qigong and acupuncture into her health maintenance routine, and when we speak, always asks about how diet and herbal supplements might help. She’s not sure how long she will stick with this regimen, but for now, she is finding her strength and even joy.
It’s a Dog’s Life
Sean walked out of the final treatment for his second cancer determined to step back into the life he was leading a year earlier. Five large rescue dogs were a big part of that life, and his devotion to meeting their demands created a structure that defines the normalcy he seeks. And when he is overwhelmed by the fatigue and anxiety that are common to so many of us recovering from treatment, they are a constant source of comfort, and a constant reminder of the goal he is confident he will achieve.
In the meantime, he is learning a new rhythm, relying on friends for levity and the occasional dog walk, and beginning to recognize that bringing others into his life will benefit his recovery and his dogs. While not making any declarations about a new way of living his life, he sees that there might be room for a few tweaks around the edges as he embraces this new openness to his emotions and interdependence of life.
Passage of Time
Miriam is finding her resilience in the passage of time that gave her the distance to care for her child and slowly accept that she had cancer. For years, she kept her breast cancer under wraps, not sharing with friends, family or colleagues her frightening diagnosis, the harrowing double mastectomy and reconstruction or grueling chemotherapy and radiation that she endured. Not sharing helped her maintain a defensive wall, allowing life to seem normal to those around her, especially her five-year-old son, and allowing her to come to terms with cancer on her own schedule.
Now, she shares her cancer story openly, mentoring others newly diagnosed and supporting women through the complex care decisions that accompany such a diagnosis. While her initial silence strikes others as odd, her strength today, and her son’s confident grin, speaks to the success of that approach for her. She sang to her own tune.
Pay it Forward
For me, resilience came from understanding and sharing. I had so many questions, so much I wanted to understand. Why did I get cancer when I am so healthy otherwise? Why does cancer make me feel the way I do? Does everyone feel this way when they have cancer? If fear and anxiety are common experiences, why does nobody talk about them? How do you cope with uncertainty when life demands declarative statements?
The more I asked, the more I learned, prompting still more questions. But as my circle of understanding expanded, I wanted to share what I had learned, aggrieved that I didn’t have this information at the time of my diagnosis, and certain that it would help so many others to understand their own ordeals—my understanding gave me comfort and strength, perhaps it can help others as well.
Now I find I have so much to share, so many ways to give—mentoring patients, speaking, and writing, helping caregivers understand, alerting care professionals to the things they may be overlooking.
Rebirth and Rejoice
As I stroll through the park, carpeted in alternating swaths of yellow and purple flowers, with the occasional mat of fallen pink petals, searching for that elusive mockingbird, I see reminders everywhere of the resilience of life. Flowers blooming, trees budding, tourists with their foreign languages as incomprehensible as the ever-present bird calls around me, all speaking of spring renewal. Even in my garden, for which the medical term “failure to thrive” would not be a misnomer, the will to live is stronger than my neglect. Bulbs and perennials are beginning to break through the cold hard earth.
As cancer patients, we, too, want to thrive. We endure the treatments, suffer through the fear, reconcile ourselves to ongoing uncertainty. And if we are lucky enough to have had an early diagnosis, the right medical support, and treatment-responsive disease, we may yet hear the words we long for: “no evidence of disease.” But, even with that promise of spring, like the mockingbird, we must work for our resilience. We still must find our own voices, our own songs, in order to rejoice in the rebirth of a post treatment life.
*Names changed to protect patient privacy.