It was 5 years ago today that I heard the words, “You have cancer.” Amidst the instant whirlwind of scheduling scans and oncologist appointments, Googling “what is ocular melanoma” (bad idea) and “ocular melanoma mortality rates” (REALLY bad idea), I had to break the news to loved ones and try to shepherd my kids through the unthinkable. Somewhere in there (mostly in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t hide from it) I also wrestled with my own disbelief and fear – Really? Me? Now?? Whyyyyyy??
As I struggled to find my bearings in this new and disorienting landscape, preparing to get my fight on, I prayed. Hard. Words and coherent thoughts refused to come, but my heart prayed and cried out anyway (I’m pretty sure that’s a language God speaks, so it’s ok). And as I learned more about my cancer and my odds of beating it (50-50), I wrestled with the very real possibility that I could die from this nonsense. Now, being a good Lutheran of German descent, I was instinctively careful to stay humble with my prayers. Nothing too extravagant, just the bare minimum. I know it sounds ludicrous, but I also know there are a few folks tracking with me here. Don’t be greedy with the prayers, don’t ask for too much (it’s ok, the rest of you can laugh, but for some of us this is a thing). So what was my minimum? What was the very least I could ask for? After serious consideration and calculation, I determined that what I desperately wanted was 5 years. It’s true that with some other cancers, 5 years is a magical number because people can declare themselves cured after that amount of time. Not so with my cancer, because it’s “special” (of course it is). I’m not sure if there’s an official time when we get to declare victory, but I know I get to stop seeing my oncologist at 15 years. So that’s not the reason I picked 5 years.
5 years reflects my overarching concern (ok panic) when I was first diagnosed: my kids. I think this is common in parents with cancer, but my first thoughts were of my kids. They were teenagers. Beyond all the laundry, packed lunches and rides to activities, there was still so much that I needed to teach them, and so many significant events I wanted to be there for. Prom, high school graduation, starting college…
So 5 years meant that I would have seen them both graduate high school and head to college. Riley would be in his senior year and Tessa in her freshman year. By then I’d have had the time to impart all my motherly wisdom, and they’d be old enough to handle things on their own if they had to. And I felt like 5 years was a reasonable ask, because even if the cancer spread before then, I’d probably have a few years after that. So it wasn’t like I was being so brazen as to ask for it to not kill me, I was just requesting some time.
Ok is this even normal?? Probably not. And does God work like that? Nope. But our minds do weird things in crisis situations. I’m not proud to admit it, but I actually spent a significant amount of time calculating all this, as if it were a totally rational thing to do. Mostly at about 2:00 am.
My point with all this is that while all of my cancerversaries are significant, today’s milestone is particularly meaningful for me.
Sheesh, she could have just said that. Look at her, she hits 5 years and suddenly gets all wordy and stuff! Like she has all the time in the world. How long is her post going to be when she hits 10 years??
(No idea who let Jim Gaffigan in here, sorry. Continuing on…)
I spent a good portion of my day today trying to put together a collage of all the important things that I’ve been able to witness and be a part of these last 5 years. Turns out it’s simply too much to put in a single collage, which just wrecked me. In a good way. I listened to “The Riddle” by Five for Fighting (Five! Holy crap, I just noticed that. No seriously, don’t laugh). I talked about that song in a post a few years ago (March, 2016), when I was struggling with finding order and reason in this whole cancer business (spoiler alert: there is none). I had a friend who passed away from cancer, and she loved that song, and I never could understand why until I found myself wrestling with that riddle myself. I find the song very moving and powerful now.
I also listened to “Before the Morning” by Josh Wilson. Here’s the cool story about that one: early on after my diagnosis, while I was still waiting to find out the extent of things and if it had spread, I went to my health club with the goal of sweating some of that fear out. As I unpacked my bag in the locker room and put on my shoes, I noticed the lyrics of the song that was playing:
Would you dare, would you dare to believe
That you still have a reason to sing
Cause the pain that you’ve been feeling
It can’t compare to the joy that’s coming
So hold on you gotta wait for the light
Press on and just fight the good fight
Cause the pain that you’ve been feeling
It’s just the dark before the morning
It was stunning. As if that song played just for me, in that moment, because I needed to hear those words that day. I’ve had a lot of moments like that these past 5 years, when I feel as if God is drawing me close and saying, “Hang on kid, we’ve got this.”
So it’s been a reflective day, to say the least. Looking at pictures, listening to songs, crying a few times. Lunch and shopping with a girlfriend too, so it’s not like I’ve been in my pj’s all day (but a fair amount of it, and I’m telling you now I’m not sorry). I’m so overwhelmingly grateful for these last 5 years, and for the fact that assuming nothing weird happens, I’m going to be around for a good while longer. Maybe a really long time – not that I’m getting cocky or anything (again with the German Lutheran thing). When a hockey game goes into overtime, my husband calls it “bonus hockey.” So now that I hit my 5 years, I’d say this is bonus life. Bring. It. On.
Press on and just fight the good fight
Here’s the thing about fighting the good fight: it’s tough to do alone. Luckily I don’t even know what that’s like, because I’ve had an army with me the whole way, which I think is the thing I’m most grateful for.
Soon after my diagnosis, my girlfriend Jami decided that all the girlfriends needed to come over to my house to pray for me. I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally ready for that, but she insisted and they all showed up. They prayed the most achingly beautiful, loving prayers over me, and by the time we were done everyone was sobbing. After surveying all of our mascara-streaked faces, Jami deadpanned, “Oh, so this is how Avril Lavigne does that smoky eye thing,” at which point we all burst into shrieks of laughter, because we actually looked more like Alice Cooper but that was just funny. At that moment, I heard the garage door opening, signaling that my husband had returned from picking up our daughter from dance. “Guys!” I gasped, “Tessa can’t see us all crying like this, she’ll freak out!” And suddenly, my friends were all world class athletes, vaulting over the sofa, hurdling the coffee table, dashing to the box of tissues and throwing them to each other with laser precision. Which, of course, sent us back into fits of laughter. And that was what my daughter saw when she walked into the house – a bunch of women who love her mom, laughing hysterically together.
That, I think, is what fighting the good fight looks like. It looks a lot like showing up for one another when life gets crazy. When the riddle is unsolvable, when you’re spending sleepless nights calculating irrational prayer requests…when you have no foothold, hold out your hand.
Grateful for so much tonight, and totally crying again, so I’ll leave it at that. I love you, my beautiful army. Thanks for having my back and fighting the good fight with me. You know I’ll do the same for you.