A neighbor was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
This kind of news always comes as a shock. Certainly for me, but more for her; there are so many changes ahead. Whether she likes it or not, she’ll be thrust into a world where the landscape stays the same but everything looks, feels, and even tastes different. She’ll visit waiting rooms painted every shade of tan; flip through the office copy of “Prevention” magazine. Mostly, she’ll find it hard to focus so she’ll revert to her strange new habit of staring at the wall, emotionless, wondering what will become of her life.
There are many lessons that I’d like to share but don’t. She’ll learn these things as she goes, I suppose. She’ll question every one of her past behaviors, wondering if she’s somehow at fault. She’ll ask “why me?” and then move on, self-pity isn’t good for the soul.
And she will move forward, that I know. One baby step at a time.
But often for every step forward there are two steps back. Cancer is thorny like that. It can morph and change, give you false hope, slip through the safety nets that you’ve so doggedly put in place.
It’s like fighting an army where every soldier is armed with a different weapon. You fight back with whatever tools are at your disposal, never knowing when the arsenal will run dry.
The age-old battle analogy…but, does it help or does it hinder? Catherine Poole, who runs the Melanoma International Foundation, talks about “fighting” words in a recent blog post. She refers to the unnecessary pressure that it puts on the patient. Do you lose the battle if you haven’t fought hard enough?
There is evidence that suggests that rather than adopting a “fighting spirit”, patients should cultivate a “will to live”. It keeps your body off the defensive and focuses your energy on the positive outcome – life itself – not the negative distractions: the enemies, mutations, and malignancies that are as much a part of your body as your own hands.
Reflecting on my own experience with cancer, it’s been deeply internal; more mental than physical. While you endure physical pain as part of the healing process, you’d be surprised by how comfortable you become with the endless battery of hospital gowns, IV drips, fevers and barium milkshakes.
But mentally – that’s where cancer really thrives. It stretches its legs and buries itself in the sanctuary of your pliable mind, teasing you with one new challenge after the next. It delights in your uncertainty and sits back to watch you squirm. Sometimes you’re tearful, morose even, but often you’re enthusiastic, filled with energy, pen and paper in hand.
You try to hold on to these good moments; in fact you feel guilty for thinking otherwise. The guilt is enhanced by the emails and texts that reassure that “you’ll be fine! I know it!”
Which should empower you further, but the truth is, these encouragements feel permeable, like the softest, most buoyant cloud which lets the sun shine through but doesn’t make each day, each baby step, any easier.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who can, with any accuracy, predict the future. So while it’s nice for friends and family to say that in their heart of hearts things will be fine, the comfort in that phrase is often more for their benefit than it is for mine.
As the patient, you know the statistics, you can recite them backwards with one eye closed. You’re both dreamer and realist; hopeful for long-term remission, but cognizant that your future is anything but certain.
This “will to live” though, is powerful. You can choose to fall prey to the numbers and live in fear. Or, you can choose to ignore them and live your life with hope, squeezing as many droplets of happiness as you can from each stone.
And there are many droplets.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, people open their hearts. You become comfortable exchanging the words “I love you”, not only with your extended family, but also your friends. You allow yourself to be vulnerable, and let people witness your lowest moments. Friends accompany you to the hospital for treatment and are present for conversations that are usually kept private. Updates on your antidepressant regimen, steroid response, the consistency of your bowel movements.
It’s raw and confusing and sometimes shameful, but to let your guard down is the essence of connection. Here’s me in all of my naked glory, take it or leave it. I have yet to see anyone walk away, and I would do the same in return.
You’ll find strength in unlikely places. Names resurface from your high school days, people you haven’t seen for 20 years or more. They send you “Chicken Soup for the Cancer Survivor’s Soul” and admit that they “don’t know the first thing about cooking but thought this Oregon sea salt might cheer you up.” They support you from the sidelines, they tell you “I’ve got you girl – whatever you need. I’m here for you.”
You’ll discover friendships online with friends of friends, sisters of friends, people whose faces you’ve never seen, voices you’ve never heard, but with whom you share a common bond: this titanium thread called cancer.
Since I don’t like the fighting analogy, here’s another one, sent by a friend on her own cancer journey:
“Think of it as going to the North Pole. You have no choice, you’re going. So get the dogs and the dogsled ready, start training, start learning, ask questions, get your gear together, get the right food and water, get a good map.
You will get frostbite, you will feel terribly lonely, you will taste despair, and you will never have anyone with whom to compare notes since no two crossings are alike.
But you will learn to love the moments when the snow is smooth under the sled. You will see Aurora Borealis. You will befriend the sled dogs. You will have an experience that will make you richer in ways that you cannot imagine now.”
I won’t tell my neighbor that she’ll be fine because I simply don’t know. But I will cheer her from the sidelines, I’ll tell her that I’m here for her, whenever she needs me. And I’ll tell her to keep her mind open to the profound sense of understanding that accompanies these life-changing events. To keep her eyes peeled for the sled dogs, they’re just around the corner along with the lights and the sense of wonder that she never knew existed.
Hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend. A few pictures from ours….
Love every bit of this.
Thank you heather 🙂 xo
Nice post loved the photos cute and fun heheh!
Thank you Steve, have a great week too
Don’t you love that point when the oldest sibling just takes over the role of helper, and the little ones accept them as a clear and capable substitute for mom? Not that we can ever be replaced as mothers, but wow. The growth and development of sibling roles is amazing to me.
Guess I’m just sappy like that… 😉
Love you, sweetie <3
Love you too, you’re one of the strong, amazing women that I’ve so grown to appreciate having in my life xox
Beautiful writing Jess. Love the photos. Looks like the kids had a wonderful weekend. xo
Thank you so much, they had a great time xox
We’ve become weekly visitors to the children’s hospital in our city due to my son’s kidneys. All of a sudden, we are thrust into the world of tests, specialists, clinics and procedures. It’s scary. And I know we have a lot to learn about this new world. But I’m glad we take it one step at a time. One learning moment at a time. Otherwise, we’d be overwhelmed and negative – which is never good when you have a sick kid.
It’s a strange new world for sure, but finding the silver lining is the ticket. It’s always there somewhere; sending good thoughts to you and your family xox
Love this post and your thoughtfullness and understanding toward your neighbor. Hugs!
Thank you so much Teresa xox
loved this post jessica, and am always so moved by your beautiful writing. your children are just precious. thinking of you often and keeping you in my prayers. xo
Thank you Maria, so happy to see your comment pop up. I love that we get to at least keep in touch here and on instagram xox
Very beautiful post. Very beautiful family. Always praying for you and your family.
Thank you so much Patrick xx
Sorry to hear about your neighbor! Darling shots of your children.
Lovely post. Looks like your kiddos had a great halloween! XX
Thank you Hannah xx
Beautiful post Jess. Adorable pictures of the kids!
Thank you Julia 🙂 xo
That must be really difficult for your neighbor. I’ve known way too many people who are either cancer survivors or lost the battle with cancer. It is a terrible disease. Have a great week!
Thanks, have a great week too Cascia
Beautifully penned! I think that is interesting advice about not spending energy on the fighting spirit, but changing focus and putting in on the will to live spirit instead. It makes sense. Praying for you and your family, and now your neighbor too!
Thanks for your sweet comments as always Christina 🙂
Beautiful pictures and a beautiful post. A friend was recently diagnosed with cancer, and I will share your post with her. Though not just for her, you are also reminding me to squeeze every drop of happiness — because sometimes I forget / neglect to do so, even when there are so many drops and no major life-changing events. I must tell you that I made your “vegan chili” this weekend. Introducing to dinner guests went something like.. “sorry I made vegan chili, I’m not sure when I even became a vegan-chili making person, but I have an old friend who writes this amazing food blog and she raved about this so there..” Vegan chili was a winner. Thank you for the inspiration and sending lots of love, strength, continued positiveness your way.
Thank you Aylin! You’re the best. And I’m glad that you liked the chili too 🙂
Another beautiful and powerful post. Thinking of you every day and sending much love and strength your way. Xoxo
Hi Jess – as always, your writing and thoughts are enlightening and from the heart. I always learn something from you. The photos of the kids are beautiful.
So beautifully written, Jessica. Loving the pictures of your adorable children! Thank-you :))
Cancer is just horrible! My mom, sister, and aunt were all nurses for years on that floor of the hospital. 🙁
I like your kid’s costumes. Halloween is so fun. I work at a design college, so there’s a lot of cool costumes.
My love- I absolutely loved reading that. I love the truth and you wrote it. Thank you my brave and courageous friend. Sending crazy love and the biggest hug a million times over!
Oh breast cancer, you evil devil. My boss was diagnosed this past week 🙁
LOVE your pics, especially the one with the colourful leaf being held! GORGEOUS!
This was hard for me to read, having just lost my father to cancer. However, I learned and gained a lot from this post (and empathised with a lot, too!) so from the point of view of a family member, thank you for sharing. It can’t have been easy for you to write, either.
On a more positive note, I want to wear face jewels like that every day!
You need to write a book! I devour these posts. Love your perspective and your honesty. You are always in my thoughts… Love you so much!
Times are chgnniag for the better if I can get this online!
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back again……re:shep’s comment about ‘ambassadors tact’. remember the nz/irl match in dublin when a security guard would not let us out of a hotel’s guest car park (that we shouldn’t have been in)? i don’t think ‘tact’ could be used to describe the diplomacy used then. maureen has my e-mail…contact me sometime.
Loved all the pics, especially the one that your son is tossing leaves, great photo!!!
Thanks for linking up on the #OMHGWW this week!
Have a great day!
Beautifully written. I too hate the fighting analogy. The trip to the North Pole is one I do like. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so honestly with us. This cancer thing just sucks!!! You are helping us know what it’s like to live with cancer and be with loved ones who are in the same place. I love your blog Jessica.
I can not even imagine what your neighbour must be going through 🙁
Beautiful pictures, looks like they all had a great time..
sorry about your friend hope she is ok
cute Halloween photos 🙂
You are such a word artist. I appreciate your posts more than I can say! I was especially touched by the part about intimacy — the experience of being vulnerable with the people in our lives. Heart-wrenching and incredibly profound. <3
You have a wonderful weekend indeed.
I just finished my long round of treatments due to breast cancer. Since being diagnosed with one July last year, I have series of treatments that really consume my energy, my insanity, my body and soul. I am super lucky to be surrounded by great family and friends who are extremely supportive along the process. But you are absolutely right. When you’re in vulnerable position, you somehow open up more and embrace others more as well. Well, I need all those supports and comforts that my loved ones offered and again I am forever grateful for that. Cheeers….
Beautiful words, so skillfully, emphatically written – powerful! To have a friend, neighbor like you in trying times must be great. I love the ‘Northpole analogy’. I guess like every or most women I have a certain fear of cancer and when ever I am thinking those negative thoughts I am trying to counteract them with positive. Focus on positive things – it seems to be a lot better.
I am not the praying kind, but I do keep you and your neighbor in my thoughts. Thank you for sharing.
And not to forget, your family holiday photos look gorgeous, I especially like ‘the witch’ 🙂
My favorite shot is of your daughter throwing up the leaves. Good one! And the leaves are just gorgeous colors.
Lovely post♥♥ Very inspiring ♥♥
Jess your writing is so wonderful. I didn’t want this post to end❤️
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I think this like all women or most women I have some fear of cancer and that I always thought these negative thoughts, I try to counteract them positively.