Wednesday, June 28, 2017

And . . . it's over!

Well, after 32 treatments, it's done . . . I rang the bell and got the certificate and said good bye.
There was only one glitch . . . The tradition is that on your last day, you bring treats for the waiting room, the front desk and your radiation team. I also wrote a few thank-you cards to include with the treats. 
As I was lying on the table waiting for my treatment, the radiation team told me over the speaker, "We just read your card and we're crying." I thought that was really sweet but a little surprising . . . I mean, the card was sweet but I figured that they heard thank-you from patients all the time. 
Well. A little later, when I was digging in my purse for the card that I had written for Craig, I realized that I had gotten them mixed up and had included Craig's card in their treat bag. The first thing I did was to think about what I had written and realized, thankfully, that there was nothing inappropriate! But they definitely got a different kind of thank-you than I intended--way over the top!
I was terribly embarrassed but Craig reframed it as a "happy accident" that blessed a really top-notch radiation therapy team so we're going with that. Now I'm even happier that I don't have to go back!

The third word

The third word . . . hard.
Years ago, I was at Laity Lodge visiting with my old CPE supervisor and he was asking about some of my life experiences. I told him that I had had a charmed life, that I hadn’t really suffered. He smiled sweetly and said, “Oh, I see . . . your hard stuff is still in front of you.” Even now, I would say that it still is.
One of the hardest things is to own the parts of this experience that were hard without minimizing it on one hand or being dramatic and self-indulgent on the other. I’m still struggling with that.
The waiting was so hardest, as many of you know . . . . waiting for test results and doctor appointments, when the roulette wheel was spinning and hadn’t stopped yet, when we didn’t know how lucky we would be. Even then, I still was present to the reality that someday I won’t be so lucky—that’s just the reality of life—and I’m still learning how to carry that knowledge with less fear and more grace. Experiencing God’s sustaining hand in this experience has helped with that and so has remembering that that’s just part of being human.
The MD Anderson experience has been hard too. The women I meet and the stories I hear amaze me with their courage and perseverance—they are women of valor; at the same time, there is a lot of fear and sorrow in that place and I seem to get tangled up every morning in a heavy net of pathos that takes me the rest of the day to get out from under.
I’ve also been very present to how much harder this experience is for so many others—it’s harder if you don’t have health insurance, it’s harder if you have to choose between saving your life or saving your job so that your family can eat, it’s harder if you have a chronic illness other than the cancer, it’s harder if you have to have chemotherapy, it’s harder—no, it’s impossible—if you don’t have a loving partner or supportive family or faithful friends. 
The whole experience has left me wanting to say to many of you, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I cared about your hard stuff—the compassion was real-- but I didn’t know and I’m sorry.”

I teach my clients about the power of “and”--the importance of living with the tension of things that are different, even at odds with each other, but equally true, so I’m holding my words in tension: lucky and fascinating and hard.

The second word

The second word is Fascinating.
Every now and then, you have an experience that takes you out of your ordinary life and gives you a ringside seat to a world you don’t know anything about. I experienced that a few years ago when I served on a grand jury for several months and got to see the world of criminal justice up close. 
This has been a similar experience—there’s a whole world of people and life and experiences there on the corner of Holcombe and Bertner that I never even knew about before. 
There are two aspects of this world that are fascinating: the technology and the people. 
Obviously, I can’t share pics of the people but here’s a photo of the machine that I visit every day. In case you didn’t know either, here’s how it works: I have marks all over my torso—red, blue, green, a bullseye, an “x” (to mark the spot) and other lines—drawn with Sharpie and covered with clear tape. 
When I lie down on the table, green laser-type lights coming from above and to the side have to be lined up perfectly with the marks. Then all the techs leave the room and give me instructions over the speaker to take a deep breath and hold it (that moves my heart out of the way) while the machine moves around my body and makes a buzzing sound. We do that a few times and then I’m done. Fascinating, huh?
(My grandmother underwent radiation treatments for childhood cancer around 1930 and then lived to be almost 80. I would love to compare notes with her.)
The most fascinating part, though, is meeting the people who sit in that tiny waiting room. The intimacy reminds me of what it feels like to sit around a campfire where stories are told and deep connections are made. I don’t know anyone’s name but their stories are with me for life and I find myself rooting for them like crazy and carrying their struggle with me when I leave. 
There are women in this room every morning from all over the country and all over the world. One of my favorite mental images is of a woman from Qatar, completely covered in black, holding hands with a liberal Israeli woman, talking quietly about their lives. That is a holy moment. 
Another memory is of a woman a little older than me plopping down in an empty chair and announcing, “Today is my birthday. I was supposed to be dead by now. But I came here and they just told me that the treatment is working.” Even though we were all complete strangers, there was genuine celebration and joy in our midst. 
This has been a fascinating experience because every day it requires me to move outside my comfort zone and enter a world where I am a vulnerable participant and a learner, not an observer or an expert. The learning is rich—about myself, about medicine, about people, about faith. And I get to share this experience with others who are also vulnerable participants and learners.
It requires me to trust, to listen, to be curious, to lie still and (literally and emotionally) put myself in the hands of others. I'm not very good at any of those things but I've had lots of practice lately and I'm getting better.

So, if you were wondering, “How’s it going?” the second word is “Fascinating.”

The first word

Today I went to MD Anderson for my 30th radiation treatment. For the last 30 weekdays, I’ve headed down to the medical center, parked in the depths of the massive parking garage and headed up the R elevators to the Radiation Oncology department. Every day, I change into a hospital gown, sit in a tiny room with 7 other women also waiting for their treatments, walk into a thick-walled vault and lay down on a metal table and let the eye of the giant machine shoot radiation into the tissue around my heart and my lungs. Then I get dressed, say bye to all the women who are still waiting and go to work.
I’ve been contemplating how to answer all the people who ask me, “How’s it going?” and I’ve come up with three descriptors. Here’s the first: Lucky.
I’ve never felt so lucky in my life. It’s impossible to sit with my diagnosis in a room with 7 other women with very different diagnoses and not feel incredibly lucky. I caught it myself. I caught it early—insanely early. My surgery was more involved than I had hoped but it left me cancer-free. I’m not doing chemo. I have my hair. I live thirty minutes from the most hard-core cancer hospital in the world. A friend of a friend got me this spot in this room. I’ve got awesome health insurance. I’m going to be okay. I am incredibly lucky.
Some of you are already preparing to leave a chastising comment to this post . . . You’re wanting to tell me that I’m not lucky, that I’m blessed. I get it. I am blessed. But here’s my thinking: I assume (or at least I hope) that I might describe myself as blessed even if I were sitting in the waiting room with cancer in my body, with no hair, with a diagnosis that made my family cry. The fact that I’m not is, in my opinion, not related to the blessing of God but to something else, something less personal. Whatever that is, I’m calling it luck. 
And every morning, I feel overwhelmingly, pervasively lucky.