It’s spring, 2021! I no longer have to bundle up with hats, scarves, or gloves and I can now take my daily walk without my shoulders scrunched up to my ears. Instead, I walk out of my apartment building relaxed, the day longer, the weather warmer, and I can loosen my scarf. By the time I get home, I am holding my scarf and my jacket is unzipped. I love that the sun is stronger and soon I will enjoy my favorite part of spring, when I start seeing little bright green buds on the trees and bushes.
Spring has always inspired me to make changes in my life, because the newness of the season comes with an abundance of energy, like a gift for all of earth’s inhabitants. I have often celebrated the season by learning something new. Some of my favorite ventures have been belly dance classes, Kundalini yoga, reading Tarot cards, and, of course, writing. For quite a few years I joined a gym and sometimes I also started the season by going on a diet.
This year, however, is very different. In fact, so was last year. I started my first chemotherapy treatment on March 26, 2020, so the first day of spring, which was March 19, 2020, came and went without a celebration of newness and good energy because my whole world darkened with the news of my cancer diagnosis. The entire world was suffering as well with the onset of COVID-19, but I was so overwhelmed with cancer that I couldn’t grasp the intensity of the pandemic until now, a year later.
When I was seeing doctors in late 2019 and early 2020, trying to find out what was wrong with me, and eventually diagnosed, I was anxious and worried that I did something wrong to bring this on. Test results were leaning toward angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma but I couldn’t really think in that direction. I kept hoping that once they ruled that out, they’d find the real problem because, after all, I’ve always been healthy, and my whole family was healthy except for my father having Alzheimer’s disease. No one in my immediate gene pool had cancer. What did I do wrong?
When I was finally diagnosed, I was relieved that my problem had a name and a solution. My wonderful doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering believed that treatment would be successful, and so chemotherapy and a clinical trial started right away. I think that I went through treatment on “automatic mode” because I wasn’t feeling nervous or hysterical, like I would have expected. Even my blood pressure, which had been high for a while, went back down to normal. I wasn’t afraid of dying because my doctor was sure we could intervene in time, the cancer was at its beginnings, and I had two dreams that showed me death was far, far into my future, so I firmly believed I would get through it — I was calm. Sad, but calm. In retrospect, I think that was my strength.
I was no longer working, not going out at all because my immune system was severely compromised, plus COVID was out there. Like everyone else, my whole world for the year was restricted to my cell phone, Zoom, texting, TV, and writing. I had a meditation practice for four years prior to cancer, but somehow I could no longer meditate. Meditation has always helped summon positive feelings about my spiritual growth and life goals, and always encouraged a positive approach to life in general. Now I’ll either fall asleep or have what meditators call “monkey mind.” When I began to see and feel the side effects of chemotherapy — baldness, exhaustion, achy bones, nausea, and other symptoms — I’d get overwhelmed by all the loss I was experiencing, and just cry. I missed “normal” life and, most of all, I missed being healthy. I felt a heavy-hearted sadness that I just carried around with me while I was trying to accept the surreal fact that I had cancer and was going through treatment. I was able to experience it all with strength and acceptance that actually surprised me, because it is only now, after looking back, that I begin to feel more vulnerable. I feel aimless, sad, and suddenly cry easily, even at commercials. I picked up a habit of looking at photos of myself — I take many selfies then delete them, and I ask my husband to take my picture because I want to see if my looks correspond with my feelings. I’m amazed at how this experience has aged me, as there I am smiling like a worn-out soldier who just survived a battle. I am surprised that this is me, a person who spent a year battling cancer.
When I finished chemotherapy, I underwent a stem-cell transplant a month later. This is an experience that truly changes everything because even seven months after the procedure, I am still recuperating and I’m supposed to wear a medic-alert bracelet for the rest of my life. It gives special instructions in the event that I cannot speak for myself and need a blood transfusion. It is also a constant reminder of my cancer experience. I have all-new blood and it will take a year for my immune system to completely rebound. The process involved many steps that made me worry about making mistakes along the way. It started with injections I had to give myself to produce baby stem cells, which were then removed and put back after I underwent more chemotherapy. I was hospitalized for a month and had to keep a low-microbial diet for three months after with the primary focus of avoiding infection because I didn’t have any immune defenses to fight it. I had to live in a germ-free environment and, as with chemotherapy, monitor all my symptoms and call the doctor if I was concerned about anything. Seven months later, I am physically stronger but I still become exhausted beyond comprehension and frightened that I will get sick. I don’t know my new body and whether or not I am still the resilient person I always thought myself to be, both physically and emotionally.
I am now officially finished with treatment, but I still have a lot of follow-up appointments. I appreciate them more than I thought I would because after treatment I felt lost, aimless, and sad, which is confusing because I assumed I would be happy to move on. But the trouble is, move on to what? COVID limits choices, plus I am still being careful because of my developing immune system. I feel stronger but I am also filled with uncertainty. Part of me wants to think that this “cancer thing” is in the past and I can just move on now, but I also feel knocked down by the reality that I will never be the same. Ongoing stomach issues, odd rashes that mysteriously come and go, and lingering exhaustion are a reminder that I can’t go home again. There is also resistance to accepting the fact that I now have a delicate stomach. As my body changes I seem to have developed sensitivity to certain foods, such as anything made with tomatoes. Even though I should have known better, I recently had tomato bruschetta over turkey and the next day my stomach was destroyed. It took a week to get my energy back and during that time the never-ending question without a satisfactory answer came up constantly: “What can I eat?” I miss my old iron stomach. The thing that changed is that I can no longer take my health for granted. It’s always in the back of my mind that cancer could return. The physical exhaustion and the emotional baggage that cancer involves is always with me. Things that happen, like stomach issues, rashes, and more-than-occasional sleepless nights, are all constant reminders that my body is not the same as it was a mere 20 months ago. Whenever I experience physical discomfort, I worry that it’s a cancerous lymph node. Having had cancer creates a cloud of worry that hovers overhead persistently.
On the flip side, when people ask how I am doing, I feel a genuine sense of relief to admit that I am in remission. It took a while for me to say that because of the lingering side effects, but I realize the moment I say it that I am genuinely happy I survived and can enjoy another day. It feels like my heart opened up and is making room for this new and wonderful feeling, and I realize at those moments that I haven’t been happy in a while. I feel proud of myself for having gone through chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant successfully and am now able to identify an inner strength that was there but not fully realized, so in addition to disturbing side effects, anxiety over cancer returning, and the frustration of having to recreate my life, I am also thrilled that I made it through to the other side and I am here to talk about it. It’s a wonderful feeling to experience something positive after such a long time.
At times it feels confusing to have two opposing emotions, but that’s what I feel — dread and relief. It’s like light and dark, good and bad, happy and sad. Duality is my new reality. The task now is learning how to create a balance somewhere between the two. And what better time than spring to learn about the experience of living with duality?