Friday, June 8, 2012

Pandora's Damn Box

When people think of cancer they inevitably think of death.  At first, I was afraid of death.  I was afraid to even mention it.  However, after spending time in the chemo lounge and looking at the examples the other cancer patients made, death became a little bit easier to deal with.  I never really had to think about death before I had cancer.  I mean yes, I had been in a couple of car accidents and other scary things like that, but I never had to actually recognize death.  It was as if death was a box on the shelf that I occasionally took down and thought about organizing, but never really took the time do so.  After being diagnosed with cancer all of that changed.  I have been forced to look through the box and nothing is going to change the fact that I could die and even if I survived this round, the cancer may come back later and finish me off.  It is rarely talked about in the Chemo Lounge and my doctor was extra careful about never mentioning it, but other people are not so tactful.  People with cancer do die.  It happens more often than I would like to think about, but I quickly found out that it’s a subject you cannot avoid. 

Ironically, one of the people that helped me the most to accept my own inevitable death was a cousin of mine that I never even got to know.  Her name was Pam.  She had had cancer before and gone through treatment.  Unfortunately, it came back and this time she was not responding to treatment and the cancer had spread.  I was stunned when I heard this from my mother as I had only ever heard the nicest things about this woman.  I was also, understandably, terrified.  A little while later Pam’s mom and my aunt (yet another wonderful person) died.  At her visitation all of my aunt’s daughters were lined up to receive our good wishes and, of course, Pam was among them.  I’m not going to lie; I was scared out of my mind.  I had nothing but admiration for this woman who was the embodiment of my greatest fear.  However, as we stood in line getting closer and closer I watched her.  She seemed serene and kind sitting in her wheel chair with family and well-wishers surrounding her.  I timidly stepped up to her, leaned over and shook her hand.  We briefly made eye-contact.  I smiled sadly into her eyes and moved on.  The interaction only lasted a few seconds, but it was life changing for me.  Her look seemed to say that she completely understood and that it was okay.  I spent considerable time thinking about this interaction for the next few days and several tears and a panic attack later I realized that she was right.  It is okay.  I am going to die and I am going to be okay with that.  I realize that I am not going to die anytime soon thanks to my wonderful doctors and the support of family and friends, but someday, I am going to die and it’s fine.  Not to say that I will not be disappointed and that I am not scared, but I am okay with dying. 

The main reason I am so okay with dying is that I took the time to think, I mean really think, about my life so far.  To be honest I have been lucky to live the life that I have led.  I have had so many wonderful experiences traveling, I have amazing parents, great friends and family and I have been given the opportunity to have a fantastic education.  The most important thing that I have experienced, however, is people.  I love people.  My whole life I have loved people.  I have spent hours watching people and wondering why they do the things they do.  I enjoy watching people interact with and watch other people even more than I enjoy anything else.  I like watching people work together to complete a task.  I like watching people make connections.  Even more than that, I like making connections with other people.  Throughout my life I have had the opportunity to make several of these connections and receive an immeasurable amount of kindness from them.  These interactions only fuel a desire in me to make further connections and spread their kindness throughout the world.  People matter.  That’s it.  There is nothing else more important in this world to me than people.  When I look back on my life and see all the amazing people I had a chance to meet and see all the amazing things I have seen happen to these people I am happy.  I am genuinely happy for others.  This happiness fills me with so much joy and warmth that it makes everything worthwhile.  My life has been worthwhile because of this.  Therefore, it is okay for me to die.  Sure there are things I have yet to do and want to do.  There are things that I will definitely do, especially now that I do not anticipate dying from cancer at this time, but regardless of whether or not I get to do so, if and when I die it will be okay.  It will be okay because my life has meaning.  My life has meaning because other people have given it meaning and they have given me something that no matter how long or short my life is I can experience again and again.  I would have to say that my life is pretty complete regardless of whether or not I achieve all of my goals simply because the primary goal, that of experiencing others, has been met. 

Recognizing my own death and learning to be okay with it has certainly had an impact.  Being around people in my age group is strange.  It isn’t that they don’t try to understand, they just haven’t had to come to terms with their own mortality in the same way that I have.  Some of them have, but the majority has not and they just seem so innocent.  They experience happiness in a take-it-for-granted way that makes me burn with jealousy.  I watch them live in and move their bodies with beauty, ease and complete abandonment.  This is not something I can do now, or think I will ever be able to do again.  I am working towards a body that does not hurt or is not limited by my experience with cancer, but it will take some time before I can move with such ease and athleticism again.  Even then, I don’t think I will be capable of taking it for granted.  Now that I have had this experience, every minute and every action has a certain weight to it.  There is heaviness, or meaning in everything I do, every word I speak, and every person I touch.  Life itself has come to be heavy.  Heavy in a good way.  It is almost like a genuine appreciation that I carry around with me, a box if you will.  I appreciate everything and everyone.  I appreciate that I am able to talk, be spoken to, act and be acted upon.  I can never take anything for granted again.  This is why it is so strange to interact with others, especially those who are my age or younger.  They have a certain amount of innocence that surrounds them.  It is both beautiful and sad to me.  I wish I could go back sometimes to being like that, but I can’t.  A big part of me doesn’t want to because I now know how important everything is.  I know the true beauty of being able to experience the sun on my skin, the wind, a hug.  Not just experiencing it, but fully living in these moments.  Like I said, there is heaviness.  However, I think this is a good thing.  I thought I understood before.  I thought that I didn’t take anything for granted and that I was mature and “adult” (whatever that means because I have certainly met adults who don’t have these feelings either), but I did take everything for granted and I was definitely not the adult that I thought I was.  Life is truly beautiful and it only took the recognition of my own death to make me realize how lovely it really is.  

I don’t know when I am going to die.  I’m glad that it is not going to be anytime soon.  However, I have to say that I will miss those that I have lost so far.  The sad fact about cancer is that people do die and some of those that I have come to know from this experience have died and/or are dying.  I am sad because I will not get to see them again.  I am sad because they do not get the privilege of interacting with others anymore.  However, I know that it is okay in the end because they were amazing people and got to experience many wonderful connections with others.  I am not sure if Pam realized what an impact she had on my life that day.  She died about a month or two later.  I went to her visitation and learned how very important she was to the world.  Her community loved her and so did her family.  She was known for being kind, wise, and understanding.  She truly made the most of her ability to connect with others.  I can only hope that I make as many meaningful connections has she did.  Looking at her connections with others only further reinforced the importance of people.  People make life worth living and the interactions that one has with people make it okay to die.  I fully appreciate my life and the opportunity I have been given to live for just a little bit longer.  I promise to do my best to take this privilege and run with it.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Awkward Shopping Trips: What Breast Friends are For.

My plastic surgeon recently told me that she wants me to buy a bra that is roughly the size and shape that I wish to be next year when the reconstruction done.  Sadly, because of my chest size she will not be able to make my breasts even unless I go a bit bigger than I am.  Also, in the future if I gain any weight I will look strange with a smaller chest and a bigger waist.  Therefore, I am now in the market for bigger breasts.  I have mixed feelings about this, but then again, I tend to have mixed feelings about everything.  At least by providing my plastic surgeon with a bra she has an idea of what to shoot for when she’s pumping me full of saline and also has a limit for how much bigger I want to be. 

As soon as I was diagnosed with breast cancer my friends were super excited about the prospect of helping me pick out new breasts.  Therefore, it only made sense to call these friends and invite them on my breast shopping excursion.  Away we went to a department store looking for a cheap bra that will double as a model for my surgeon.  Two friends opted to come with me (one, I shall call Jane and the other, Joe).  The three of us wandered around the store looking at bras.  Honestly, if anyone ever wants to see how absurd our world really is then they should wander around the lingerie department.  Everything was covered in zebra stripes, sequins, glitter you name it and I bet you could find it there.  Also, why does every bra have so much padding?   To quote a friend’s mother, “There must be several disappointed young men around.”  After some finicky searching, I finally took the few that I found without padding into the dressing room.  This task was awkward because I would try on a bra, put my shirt on over it, and then come out and ask my friends what they thought.  I’m sure that anyone in the dressing room or passing by thought that we were absolutely nuts.  Our comments were not exactly of the usual kind you hear in a dressing room.  However, I did manage to find one bra slightly bigger than I currently am that seemed okay.  You would think that I would be done, but oohhh no, Joe insisted on parading me around the store just to make sure I could be comfortable with these new accouterments.  Joe and I proceeded to the men’s department while I attempted to keep myself from looking like I was wearing un-purchased, over-sized, store merchandise under my clothes.  It has been my experience that this practice is generally frowned upon and I was mortally afraid of getting caught and trying to explain myself to the store clerks.  We continued on to discuss ties and shirts as if everything was cool.  However, it was a struggle to keep myself from crossing my arms over my chest or to keep my face in check. 

On our walk back to the dressing room the unexpected happened.  Someone I went to high school with was waiting outside the dressing room for his girlfriend.  Also, there was a line outside the dressing room, meaning that Jane was stuck inside, guarding my dressing room and that we were holding everyone up.   Not knowing what to do, I had Joe take a sudden hard turn and figured that, maybe if we walked around the store a bit more things would be better and the dressing rooms would be empty (especially of people I used to know) by the time we got back.  Sadly, this did not happen and before I could escape, my brother who had been in the store doing his own shopping elsewhere said, “Look, Michaela, it’s so and so.”  There was no escape this time.  I did what had to be done.  I straightened my shoulders, quickly made sure my oversized bra was straight and marched passed him into the dressing room giving him a quick nod and a “How’s it going?” as I went by. When I rounded the corner into the dressing room I found the door open, but could not see Jane inside.  I peeked around the door and found Jane awkwardly hiding behind the door.  I asked her what she was doing and she explained that she didn’t know what to do as everyone came in and saw her standing there, but not trying anything on.  I asked her why she did not close the door and pretend that she might be trying something on, but she said that she felt it was too late by that time and therefore, could do nothing but stand in the corner hoping we returned soon.  Of course, we did not return quickly because I was desperately trying to avoid meeting anyone I knew.  She was left, standing there hoping that we would return and trying to avoid looking people in the eye.  I quickly changed back into my normal, comfortable bra size and we got out of the store.  So yeah, mission accomplished.  Although, I have to admit, buying new breasts was a lot more fun and even more awkward than I imagined it would be.