Party For One

You earned that little party for one last night, my dear sweet Jeff, more than earned it.

As expected, it was an all-day affair in the Cross’s chemo room, culminating in that last hour of intensity. “This is the pivotal one,” my amazing nurse told us late in the day, the one who had just told me she loved me, and to my response that I loved her too, replied with a smile and an “I love you more.”

“This is the one we have to watch every second of,” she said. “Since I’ve now added another 100 mg Benadryl to the Lorazepam and Benadryl she got earlier, she may not be alert enough to hit the call button if the need arises. So it’s your job, sir, to watch. Watch for flushing, watch for itching, watch for rash, watch for headache, watch for her throwing the blanket off, watch for anything unusual at all. Just watch. This is the drug she actually reached a lifetime allowance of four years ago, the drug her oncologist loves best. She waits the required four years to reuse it, but I have some patients here who have used it many, many times again past that point, one elderly woman here 20 times now.”

So after being at my beck and call all day, you did just that: watched me sleep through that last hour-long infusion. I’d crack my eyes open, and there you were, your eyes on me. I’m still aglow with feeling loved.

At home a few hours later, in the loveliest deep sleep on our giant boat-sized couch, feeling nothing but joy and light around me, hearing a happy party in progress, literally, a party complete with all our favourite music playing at party volume, I open my eyes for a while, and see you there in my little red mini chair, a hand full of snacks in one hand, an empty glass of Scotch or something next you, laughter on your face.

I’m full to the brim with joy: you’ve more than earned this little party. I go back to sleep.

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This is a good news story. (Just in case you respond adversely to my next sentence and want to turn away.)

My cancer is back. It’s still a good news story though, so stay with me.

For efficiency’s sake, and because I’m not up for a ton of face-to face visiting right now, a quick timeline.

I received an all-clear from my oncologist in early fall, and was still climbing river-valley stairs easily. But by late fall, I wasn’t feeling well. Not the symptoms I had when I was first diagnosed with cancer four years ago; just more of the same post-treatment stuff that has haunted me for the past four years, only becoming ever more intense.

First call: My oncologist. CT scan scheduled. Then a few other investigations by various doctors, which yielded a few semi-helpful things, one of which included lab panels “typical for someone who’d been administered six rounds of your particular chemo cocktail four years ago.”

We addressed a few things; I still didn’t feel well.

And I still desperately needed a new family doctor to replace the one who left town on me; the interim ones weren’t working out, not one bit.

I did, thankfully, secure help to control my symptoms. I also significantly intensified my long-unsuccessful search for a new doctor. No success.

Then, with Christmas a few weeks away, an awesome and eagerly anticipated Christmas Eve party with the kids on the horizon, my focus mostly elsewhere, beginning to fear the C-word just a little, I bumped my CT scan by three weeks.

Guilty of Magical Thinking? No. Seeing a potential Tsunami on the horizon, however unconsciously, is worthy of a few weeks emotional processing time.

One week into 2015: the rescheduled CT scan. A week later, the news. No advanced invasive cancer, just some cells forgetting to die off and move their butts out of the way. Still: shock, tears, anger, all of it.

Me right now, literally: sitting in the prettiest living room I’ve ever lived in, sun- and color-drenched at the moment, relieved, optimistic, eager to start treatment.

Also me right now, equally literally: surrounded by brightly glowing concentric circles of breathing, generous, present, human love—perhaps the greatest miracle of the universe, holy and sacred.

Beyond those circles, perhaps less visible to some eyes, but equally real, an endless throng of deeply seasoned, indefatigable, infinitely strong and free, deeply wise, electrically charged, ready to be leaned into: mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, reaching back right outside of time.

It’s time to dance—definitely not a waltz though, more a kick-box kind of dance.

Yes, the coveted five-year mark of remission would have been outstanding. But this is still good news. My overstaying and multiplying guests have been too busy partying to send down roots into the fertile ground beneath them. They’ve been happy just hanging out on their lawn chairs.

I’ve never been very patient with guests who overstay their welcome. I should stop throwing such good parties really, but in the meantime, I’m coming in with a stiff arsenic-laced broom. And I’m going to get outstandingly good at managing guests who overstay their welcome.

Also—and this is enormous—they did me a beautiful favour and waited until the four-year mark to start making too much noise to ignore, which, it turns out, is pure awesomeness: It’s been four years exactly since my first go-around with the cocktail that worked so well last time, and it just so happens that a repeat of this cocktail—the kindest of my options—is prohibited prior to the four-year mark. Anything sooner would’ve involved a much less kind, more misery-inducing ingredient.

In case there’s any doubt, this isn’t bright-siding or a veneer of positive thinking or anything of that sort. I know a little about ovarian cancer stats. I despise not feeling well as much as anyone. I love being free to work and play. I know how frightening the news has been to my adult children, husband, parents.

Making the phone-calls was brutal, and—I’m not proud of this, but I tend toward honesty—ended with me throwing a few little safe-ish items around my living room that evening, leaving my husband a tad paralyzed and asking me to please, please, please pass him my cell phone to spare its life. (I managed to put it down unharmed.)

My friend, who got cancer-spreading news two days before I did, and whose partner had heart surgery the day I got my news, came over that night after being at the hospital with him all day. We embraced, and let the intensity of it all flow through us. An enormous and potent gift. Same night: my daughter, looking utterly ragged and devastated, came too. A gift just to be together. And then again. And then again, she looking stronger and less ragged with each visit. A visit with my busy son and his partner. My husband’s tears. My parents’, sister’s, friends. Beautiful gifts.

I also now have, finally—truly a miracle where I live—found a new female physician, with whom I believe I’ve fallen instantly in love with. No rhyme or reason here either, just a random gift. She watched her mother live with my same cancer, and knows it up close and inside out. This is enormously comforting to me. And—equally vital—she knows the difference between pity and empathy. She knows that the moment of shock or grief is not the time to offer platitudes, that gratitude for silver linings can’t be force-fed or premature. Demolition needs to be complete and cleared away before any kind of solid rebuilding can occur.

Last week, seated on a couch in a small, warm room surrounded by women with whom I have for the past two years been exploring the inescapable human fear of mortality and illness, and just how we might successfully live and die well in spite of this fear, I experienced, again, deep changes at the level of my innately intelligent cell membranes.

At one point these deeply open and wise women got up to stand behind me and in front of me, all of us physically connected. We breathed and stayed that way for some time. It infused me with a hefty dose of potent ancestral strength, the kind that bends and sways but never breaks—I could almost feel my Vagus nerve and Amygdala align themselves to a new level of healthy stress regulation.

I’m ready to dance. Come along if you feel like it, just remember to follow my lead.