Maybe I wasn’t born a planner, but for most of my life, planning has been an integral part of who I am. When I was young, uncertainty at home made planning essential. What will I do to minimize risk if Dad come home in a bad mood? How many hours of babysitting money do I need to save to buy a new pair of jeans? And after graduate school, I took planning to a high art form becoming a corporate strategic planning consultant. How can we outmaneuver the competition?
Spontaneity and living in the moment have a lot to offer, but there are some good things about planning, too. The anticipation of a plan—for a vacation or reunion with a longtime friend—like the reviewing of photos after the fact, can be as joyful as the event itself. Thinking through all the options, envisioning the possibilities. Even checking out a menu in advance of going to a favorite restaurant is a way to savor the tastes before indulging.
But Cancer and COVID put an end to all that. There is no more planning, no more savoring, and anticipation seems only to bring dread.
I recently flew to San Francisco for what was supposed to be a week of caring for my teenaged cousins while their moms were away. It’s a week we have repeated several times over the past decade, allowing my adult cousins to attend a conference, and giving me the pleasure of watching two sweet and creative children blossom into remarkable young women. Until COVID said, not so fast. An hour into the flight, I received a text message from my cousin. Her wife had tested positive. Juggling the need to stay safe with the needs of an infected household without an able-bodied adult became a multi-layered nightmare, and trying to sort out what to do midflight without internet access was stressful in the extreme.
The Cancer Bomb
The last time I remember juggling so many stressful decisions was when I heard those dreaded words, “You’ve got cancer.” How to find a doctor and a treatment plan, how to rearrange my life to accommodate this new nightmare, who to tell what to and how to work with the insurance company so they would pay for as much as possible became instant and urgent questions. Yet my only thought was, “I’m too young to die.”
It wasn’t until the doctor who later performed my surgery took my hand and said, “Cynthia, I will take care of you. It will be a difficult six months, but I am confident you will be fine” that I was able to relax a bit. And when he said the surgery could wait until after I had visited those same dear cousins in San Francisco as planned, I was even more relieved, knowing the love and joy I would soak up during the trip would fortify me for the surgery and chemo ahead. But that was the end of planning. For the next couple of years, it was too hard to predict how I would feel on any given day to plan an outing for coffee, much less a real adventure.
Now, I no longer feel the daily unpredictability of my health or the constant anxiety from the threat of recurrence. I was regaining control over my life—at least, until COVID hit. But a big part of that has been the comfort of knowing the doctor who held my hand was looking after me still. Unfortunately, I learned last week that he won’t be there anymore. After 45 years of saving lives, including mine, he is moving on. While a huge personal loss, I can only imagine the anxiety such a transition will cause for so many more recently diagnosed patients.
Life is always about adapting to a series of challenges. The world is constantly changing, and on a personal, national, and global front, it is no longer the one I thought I knew. I find I am still getting tripped up by the changes, like the log that fell two years across the path I like to walk with the dog. How many times am I going to bruise or scape myself stepping over that log before I find safe passage? How many ways am I going to bang into the new realities of life before I learn to navigate safely through my days?
I know my woes are petty ones. Luckily, I have been free of cancer for six years. I am healthy, fit, embraced by a loving family and with enough financial flexibility to not worry about basic human needs. But I miss my old life. My pre-cancer, pre-COVID life, with a sense of freedom—to plan, to engage, to savor, to travel. And I miss the world I had grown accustomed to in the years before my diagnosis.
Recently I listened to some Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young from the 70s. While I put it on to cheer myself up, I found it depressing to think that all the things we had protested in song decades earlier were battles we are still fighting today. Peace, the climate, civil rights, privacy, reproductive health, equality. Only now we are doing it with yet another log across the path—the uncertainty of a pandemic that seems to be waving yet again.
It is the nature of life to go in cycles. Seasons change. We make progress and then retreat from it. That’s history in a nutshell. And I know that taking a deep breath and letting go of the things I can’t change while focusing on the ones I can influence will help me feel resilient, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the state of life today. And there are days when it all just makes me grumpy.
But other days, when the sun is shining and I get to share time with those I love, maybe even get on the tennis court, my joy and confidence in the forward progress of life and the world feel boundless. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. I will try to focus on today, and if tomorrow brings me back to gloom, maybe a soundtrack by The Beatles will be more cheerful?