I felt like I was on parole. Every six months, I had to check in, do paper work, submit to a strip search – from the waste up – and then wait to see if I’d get a reprieve or tossed back into the system. In my case, it was life or death.
After I discovered a lump on my breast, an almond just under the surface of my skin, I saw a doctor. He gave me a 3-month prognosis and told me to get my affairs in order. Triple negative breast cancer is aggressive, and mine had spread to other parts of my body. The oncologist told me that even if the treatment worked, my cancer would likely come back over the next five years and that if it did, it would be fatal. On the other hand, he told me, if I did survive the next five years, my statistical risk of dying would be the same as everyone else. I was in the phase of cancer treatment some people call worried waiting.
If I did survive the next five years, my statistical risk of dying would be the same as everyone else. I was in the phase of cancer treatment some people call worried waiting.
My husband, Gary, and I drove home from that doctor’s appointment in a changed world. In many ways, it was like life after March 13th this year, when, for our family, the pandemic became real. That day, my mother-in-law’s assisted living facility went on lockdown, my daughter’s school closed, and an acquaintance became stricken with Covid-19. Uncertainties shadowed our future. Would any of us get sick? Would our income hold up? Would we ever go to the movies again?
When I got my cancer diagnosis, I lived in rural Northern California and my daughter had just turned ten. That year, I traveled over 10,000 miles for chemo, surgery, and radiation. On two occasions, side effects sent me to the ER where death seemed imminent. I was skinny and weak but well enough to worry. Just as in the pandemic, chaos and loss had no end in sight. I narrowed my focus to my attitude, the only aspect of my situation I could hope to control.
At the bottom of a drawer, I found an abandoned notebook and decided to call it my Recovery Journal. On the cover, I glued a photo of Gary and our daughter as a reminder to chose optimism and prioritize love. Inside, I wrote snippets of conversations with strangers in waiting rooms, kept a lock of my hair, and drew sketches of nurses I liked. That journal became a companion throughout my experience with cancer, a place where I could deposit worries and celebrate victories. During Covid, I decided to do it again.
That journal became a companion throughout my experience with cancer, a place where I could deposit worries and celebrate victories. During Covid, I decided to do it again.
The cover of my family’s Covid journal features a picture of the Tiger King, the unlikely guy who captured the nation’s attention at the beginning of this crisis. Inside, we glued down a square of toilet paper, a snapshot of the pie my daughter made when school was cancelled, and the label from hand sanitizer we scored on Amazon. Our Covid journal is a keepsake we’ll cherish, a creative outlet that documents our experience. It reminds us that while there’s plenty to be scared about, the pandemic has funny, heartwarming, and liberating side effects too.
During cancer, I also learned the importance of having something fun on the calendar, no matter how small. After infusions, I had a brief window when the steroids in my chemo cocktail made me feel pretty good before nausea and fatigue kicked in 24 hours later. For four months, on our long drives home from chemotherapy, Gary and I always stopped at the same diner at the halfway point. The promise of sitting in a booth and sharing a milkshake kept me going. It was small but important, and I carried that practice into Covid. We always have something on the horizon, even if it’s just a dance party in the kitchen.
After chemo and surgery came six weeks of daily radiation. Because we lived so far from the hospital, I had to move to an apartment in the Bay Area, leaving Gary and our young daughter at home. On that first day of this phase of treatment, when I descended into the tomb-like radiation chamber, my mind raced with what ifs. My willpower collapsed, and I didn’t know how I’d endure the month and a half that stretched before me.
I climbed onto the table, threading my arms through the stirrups designed to keep my body in the right position. Surreal beams of light flickered over my pale skin, and whirling and clicking sounds echoed weirdly throughout the space. A disconnected voice came over the intercom and told me to hold my breath. Then it said to release my breath. And that’s when I learned to meditate.
My time of uncertainty with cancer is the part of my journey that most closely mimics the pandemic, a time of waiting and not knowing.
All my life, I’ve chased the idea of meditating. I took classes, downloaded apps, sat in the lotus position — nothing tamed my monkey mind. But daily radiation forced me to be still and alone every day while I was trained to control my breathing. Eventually, my mind learned to let go of everything other than the present moment, and I came to look forward to the sweet release I felt in that experience. Learning to meditate remains one of cancer’s most enduring gifts, and its a tool I use every day for coping with Covid.
My time of uncertainty with cancer is the part of my journey that most closely mimics the pandemic, a time of waiting and not knowing. But I learned that living with uncertainly doesn’t have to be uncomfortable all the time, and it can provide a space to grow and flourish.