Last year on Groundhog Day I was crushed to learn that lymphoma returned. I was in remission for a bit under 3 years, was beginning to feel hopeful that I had a clear path in front of me, and that I could move away from the dark cloud of cancer. Then, suddenly, jail with no “get out of jail free” card. It took a year for me to appreciate the irony and humor of learning about my cancer recurrence on Groundhog Day.
Last year was also the 30th anniversary of Bill Murray’s movie, Groundhog Day and so we taped it beforehand not yet knowing I was going to be living my own Groundhog Day! The Bill Murray character lives the same day over and over again and transitions from cantankerous and sarcastic to loving and authentic. My Groundhog Day experience seemed to go in the opposite direction: from joyful and optimistic to angry and discouraged: I’m still under that cloud.
In my first Groundhog Day essay I ended with the question of how can I go through this with an open heart? In retrospect I was a tad unrealistic and optimistic, because before acceptance with an open heart can occur, I needed room for anger. My oncologist recommended managing my lymphoma with oral medication because my original treatment, considered most aggressive, was not effective.
Shortly after my cancer recurrence, my husband and I went out to dinner with friends, and we were asked how it’s all going. Pat answered that I got angry more often, and that he was often the target. I was surprised! I thought that I was angry because he was annoying, so it took time for me to realize just how angry I was at having a recurrence that will have to be managed for the rest of my life. My husband’s simple comment, expressed with acceptance and compassion, took me from a state of shock to a current of cascading emotions. Anger, fear, uncertainty and anxiety twirled around me like a tsunami.
I was just beginning to plan trips, and to enjoy living fully with cancer behind me, so I was stunned when the rug was yanked out from under me. I felt betrayed — I lost trust in my body, which is always acting out with various symptoms ranging from every imaginable digestive issue, leaving me with only about a half dozen kinds of food that doesn’t make me sick. I have annoying bumps and itchy spots on my skin that come and go mysteriously and exhaustion that makes me feel drugged. My oncologist prescribed a clinical trial pill that 10 months later is still working and though it put me back in remission, I am still left with these symptoms and the never-ending question of how to deal with these physical obstacles that take up so much of my attention. It’s hard to establish a fulfilling rest-of-my-life when I’m weighed down with symptoms and the fear that cancer can come back.
I spent the year becoming accustomed to my new normal which consists of monthly visits to Sloan Kettering to monitor the effects of the clinical trial pill, and complaining to an attentive staff who try to help me accept “what is.” It seems they are happier with my remission than I am because I am their success story, but I still don’t know how to move on.
All that being said, if the Bill Murray character transformed his repetitive doldrums into a rewarding existence, I could at least look to see if there is a lesson or two for me to learn. For one thing, the ending in my last Groundhog Day story had an overly optimistic goal of an open loving heart. I see that I tend to push away hard-to-deal with feelings in favor of flowery solutions while playing emotional leapfrog. I am learning that anger needs to be felt and expressed but not at the expense of others. I have a life-long habit of repressing my anger, but given my life circumstances, I need to tackle this issue, faster. Expressing my fury with writing or talking to a like-minded friend has actually helped me feel calmer and stronger. I was thrilled when I found myself feeling better after ranting about something in my writing recently. When expressed properly, anger eventually passes — glazed over tranquility seems cartoonish. When anger dissipates, there is calm like after a storm while glazed over tranquility is like play doh that eventually crumples.
Living through Groundhog Days are unsettling, good days, and bad days. As I write this, I’m noticing some new aches so I’m anticipating another roller coaster ride of enlarged lymph nodes and emotional upheavals. The roller coaster ride takes me through hope, resistance, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness. I hope it’s nothing, but I already called my team and am preparing for another pet and CT scan. Maybe this time more emotional awareness will make the ride easier. Next year I’m going to join Punxsutawney Phil.