On January 17, 2018, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. What followed was a pilgrimage into the heart of darkness, punctuated by bouts of unremitting fear, yet with, occasionally, a glimpse of the light of hope. Woven in and about all this troubling passage was the heartening knowledge of a luminescent web of prayer and invocation, much of it bequeathed me by total strangers, buoying me up at my worst moments.
I have nothing but admiration for those who deal with this unbearable disease while working, or while raising a family. I had neither of those considerations to weigh upon me, something for which I am limitlessly grateful, for I know I would not have done well with either responsibility while enduring my dark night of the soul. And while a young family to be looked after, or a career to tend to, might have helped to keep me centered, I very much fear I could not have done justice to either while enduring my diagnosis and treatment. I recognize now that those who do so are genuine marvels: they are true superwomen and men.
But as I review the months of my confrontation with this most evil of diseases, what I most recognize now is how unprepared I was for the way in which everything—every tiny and insignificant detail of daily living—becomes “before cancer” and “after cancer”. Everything. The simplest acts, the most common thoughts or behavior, come to be labeled “Prior” and “Following”.
Writing letters one day to two relatives who do not do e-mail, I realized that the stationary I was using, which I’d won in a family bingo game at Christmas, was from Before my diagnosis. I never suspected, I thought as I penned the news to my relatives, that I would be writing such dreadful news on that pretty flowered paper.
Attending the family Chinese New Year/Two Birthdays party in February, it struck me that these party plans had been made Prior. Watching a TV rerun was “first seen pre-cancer”. Checking my scheduled blog posts became notable as “written before” and “written after”.
Before, prior, was a time of innocence, comparable to early childhood. After, Following was a visit to the nether regions of hell.
In much the same way now, I date and file in my mind everything as “during cancer” and “cancer-free”. Turning the page on the paper calendar that hangs upon my refrigerator, I was forcibly struck by the fact that, for the first time in 2018, I was starting a month without the knowledge that I had cancer. I had been through two surgeries, countless tests, and dozens of appointments. I was cancer-free. I had a 90% chance of remaining in that desirable state, having only one risk factor for recurrence. I was, in fact, and perhaps only for the moment, one of the very fortunate few.
In life Before, cancer was a vague and troubling possibility, one which had brought sorrow to me many times, as I watched friends and family succumb to the evil. It was a fate which I hoped to escape, but to which I gave, if you will, lip service only.
In life After, every simple ache, every pain, is now a terrifying reality. Is my aching knee simply an aging joint—or a metastasis? Will I have to endure a recall on this year’s mammogram? Is my breathlessness just my usual asthma, or something more serious?
Years ago, a coworker’s told me of her husband’s diagnosis of a serious but unrepairable heart disorder that could, probably would, eventually kill him. “It’s like living with death on the doorstep,” she told me in terror.
I took her hand and replied, “My dear, we all live with death on our doorstep. For your husband, the true difference is that he knows Death’s name.”
For a brief moment, I knew the possible name of the Death who lives on my doorstep. And while I know that each of us is terminal—that nobody is getting out of Dodge alive—I genuinely hope that the name of my Death will never be cancer.