I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.
We had just checked into a perfect Airbnb in the Muir Woods (California), the last house at the top of a winding single lane road which became an even more narrow winding private drive, when I got the call. I had undergone a biopsy earlier in the week and my doctor wanted to discuss what they found as soon as possible. I missed the first call, but he called back. This was urgent, apparently.
I was alone outside, looking out over Mill Valley, while the words malignant, liposarcoma, tumor and radiation treatment bounced around my head in what felt like bullet time. The doctor started talking about cell types and explaining they would also need to check my lungs, while his voice faded to static in my ears. I just kept my focus on the view and eventually heard “we can talk when you’re back in North Carolina” — which was a welcome cue to say thank you and hang up and catch my breath. I kept the news/reality of this cancer to myself for more than 48 hours. My girlfriend was a bridesmaid for one of her best friends that weekend (the reason we were at this beautiful Airbnb in California in the first place) and I was still processing what bits I had heard clearly. How do you start that conversation anyway. We found a place for sushi and came back to the house. We drank wine and found a puzzle book and we relaxed into a weekend that was a celebration of new love and the future. I spent the next day exploring Mill Valley alone, following winding roads with this news while the bridal party did…bridal party stuff. I managed to have a great day (with stops for coffees and bagel & lox from this cafe). It was an incredible wedding and I danced all night, hard. Like, try to sweat the cancer out of your leg hard. We got back to the Airbnb blissed out after a long night with friends, we slept, we spent the next day exploring San Francisco and innocently enjoyed the rest of our trip. Aquarium!
When we flew home reality hit.
I told my girlfriend and my family and, once back in North Carolina, I had my lungs scanned (which I still do every six months, a couple spots/nodes but there hasn’t been any growth/change so “we’ll just keep an eye on them” say the doctors, every time). I was immediately scheduled for 5 weeks of daily radiation to shrink the pineapple-sized soft-tissue cancer inside my right thigh and we set a date for surgery. Save-the-dates are supposed to be for happy life events, but here we were. I posted publicly about the cancer for the first time the night before my surgery and the next day I was supposedly cancer free. Eyes wide emoji, yeah. The surgery was successful, margins were clean, blah blah, but the entire thing felt like psychological whiplash for everybody, which I could only see in retrospect. It had been just 3 months from diagnosis to surgery. Wtf. So much had happened. I’ll probably write about treatment and recovery later, but the continued limbo of regularly scheduled MRIs and CT scans every 6 months makes living life hard. You want to feel healthy and okay, you just want to heal and feel healed, to go back to life before that phone call. You don’t want regular reminders that life has changed. But, life. Last year I didn’t write about the anniversary of my surgery or anything about the summer I had cancer — which Zach only ever knew as the “bump” Dad had in his leg. I wanted to. But, life fell apart and there was so much noise. This summer, this week, I needed to take time to remember where I was when I got the news, standing outside that Airbnb — the one with the gorgeous view, with the recluse artist upstairs, with the shower that felt more like a sneaky indoor cave molded in light gray plastic and the french press coffee that I’ll never forget. I needed to remember that by grounding myself there in that place, surrounded by love and the hope of a wedding weekend, I was able to hear and hold this scary news but not become overwhelmed by fear, to embrace the joy of that weekend, to find joy for myself even in that uncertainty and to be present in the moment with the people around me.
I need to remember.
So much has changed since that conversation I had with my doctor outside our Airbnb (a place we had talked about booking again one day, with Zach), but maybe let’s focus on one trauma at a time.
No matter the trauma, I will look for joy and call on that same personal well of calm resilience to be optimistic and stay present in the moment. And when I fail, I will try again. Everyday.