The Big “C”

Praying, © Joan Z. Rough, taken with a plastic, toy camera.

Cancer … it’s everywhere.  Young, old, or middle-aged, few seem to be spared.  And if not cancer, it’s heart disease, Alzheimers, diabetes, some or all of the above. I hear less these days about people dying just because it was their time.

When we sign on for this gig, we are told the day will come when we will leave our bodies behind and move into the next world.  Some of us call it heaven, and others believe in a hell where we will be tortured for all of the nasty-bad things we did in our lives.  But none of us has any idea of what or where we’ll end up. In accounts from those who have had near death experiences, there may be lots of light and many friends and relatives who have already passed, waiting to help us cross.  The evening before she died, my mother acknowledged an invisible (to me) gathering crowd.  Annoyed she said, “Why don’t you say something instead of just standing there?”   When I asked her what she meant, she said, “Not you, them!” pointing to the empty wall in front of her.  The next morning she died after I had gone home to take a shower, and she sent a mourning dove to let me know she was gone.  It was enough to make me believe in the after-life, whatever it may be.

Cancer for my family of origin has been a huge, fearsome word.  Three of my grandparents died of cancer; My father died of bladder cancer; my mother died of lung cancer; and my brother Reid, died of esophageal cancer just over a year ago. He was nine years younger than I.

I didn’t grieve for my grandparents.  I was quite young and didn’t like them much except for my grandmother on my mom’s side, who was playful and fun to be around. But that’s another story. When my parents  died I was relieved. Their lives had been filled with anger and unhappiness. I do miss my mother now, especially when there is exciting news I want to share with her. Reid’s passing left me feeling a huge hole in my heart.  When he was just a tot, I spent hours taking care of him. He was way too young to die.

This past week, my daughter Lisa found a lump in her breast.  But after a mammogram and other tests she was declared free and clear of cancer. She had recently lost a lot of weight while doing a wellness program.  It seems the lump was just a bit of fibrous tissue/fat that didn’t want to leave just yet.

Over a year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus.  I had been spotting off and on for a couple of months.  I didn’t pay any attention since we were moving, and my brother was in the last stages of his disease.  Late in August, I suddenly realized that I was hearing and seeing the “C” word everywhere … in newspapers, magazines, email and on TV and radio. I was being sent a message.

I made an appointment with my primary physician, who told me my PAP smear showed abnormal cells.  She sent me to a gynecologist who found cancer in the lining of my uterus.   Her recommendation was to see a doctor at the University of Virginia Medical Center, who came highly recommended for her skills in the da Vinci System, the least invasive surgery of its kind when it comes to hysterectomy.

I was scared out of my wits, and if the Cancer diagnosis didn’t scare enough crap out of me, my anxiety and fear built to a crescendo the morning of my first appointment. Being in the University Hospital felt like being in the thick of a major city, with thousands of people wandering about, most of them sick.  Stern-looking doctors in long white coats gave me goosebumps, and the noise of the place completely overwhelmed me. I’m not generally of fan of Western Medicine.  I usually search out alternative practitioners, but in this case there was no alternative.  I regressed back into a tiny child, surrounded by dragons and demons, poking needles into me for blood samples.  The tremors I usually experience under major stress came on big time.  They didn’t begin to fade until some weeks after my surgery.

I felt terribly alone, unable to focus on much except the question of what was next. I didn’t want to die, nor did I want to spend years in a rocking chair, slowly fading into oblivion with invasive treatments. Gradually the hospital did become a bit less challenging and I began to realize that I had phenomenal support from my Doctor and the nursing staff.  Family and friends sent prayers of wellness. Everyone was so kind. It was impossible to be angry.

But fear was my constant companion. I began bargaining, just as I had when a child, telling God I’d be a good girl from now on if only She would keep my father from beating me. Having a strong foundation in the Buddhist way, I decided that for whatever amount of time I was given, whether it be a month or ten years, I would spend my days giving back the kindness and love that had been gifted to me over the years. Regardless of how much pain and sorrow I had experienced in my life, now was not the time to be angry and blaming.  It was the time to be grateful for all that I had been given despite any difficulties I had endured.  It was time to concentrate on the important things in my life … family and friends, art, writing, and being present in each and every moment.

After my hysterectomy rendered me cancer free, in early October, I spent several months recovering. I was in some pain. I slept a lot, complained about not being able to go to Pilates class, and started taking short walks around the neighborhood. I also began to appreciate the time for deep relaxation. Despite the loss of my missing reproductive organs I still had my spirit. I had just come through one of the most frightening times in my life with flying colors.  To me, that was more important than the loss of organs I was no longer using.

By mid December I was almost me again, and feeling that I had been given a second chance at life.  Things had changed for the good.  I was more in touch with myself and others around me.  The pace of life slowed down and I woke up mornings without what I call the dreads: short but extremely painful moments of being afraid to get up, because of the bad things that might happen that day. If people were unkind, I wanted to smile and simply let the thought of hurt feelings go.  Like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, I had seen the end and I wanted only to be forgiven for what I had wrought during my lifetime … to forgive myself and others that had caused pain and suffering.

Now I try to I celebrate each day with new promises to be kind to myself and others, and to stay healthy. I’ve also made it known to every Saint, God and Spiritual Master out there, that I want to die quickly doing something I love, like making art, or else very quietly in my sleep.  And I wouldn’t mind one of those joyous New Orleans funerals with good food, squealin’ jazz, wailin’ blues and dirty dancing.  We do need to be celebrated when we move on, no matter where to and no matter how bad or good we’ve been.

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12 Responses to The Big “C”

  1. patti stark says:

    Enjoyed that so much – especially the joyous ending! So glad you are cancer free, and feeling so good!

  2. jzrart says:

    Thanks Patti! I’m feeling happy and enjoying life!!

  3. Sharon says:

    Thank you for journeying through the hard stuff and sharing the story. It helps more than I can say.
    Love you.

    • jzrart says:

      Sharon, I’m glad that helped. Each of us experience different things when traveling down such a road. I feel I was one of the most fortunate, having an easy cancer and treatment. As you know we’re not all that fortunate.

      Love you my friend, Joan

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Joan, your story reminded me of Steve Jobs’ amazing Stanford University commencement address when he talked about the gift it is to stare down death and survive with joy. Have you seen it on Youtube?

    And I have a friend Lailey. Do you have one too?


  5. jzrart says:

    Wow, Shirley! That’s quite a compliment. Yes I did read it and perhaps, it helped me to birth this piece.

    Yes, I have a friend Lailey Jenkins, who lives in Washington State. Is she the same Lailey as yours? That would be amazing if it is!!

  6. Becca says:

    I don’t think we can ever fully appreciate our lives until we’ve cheated death – as you did, and as so many other Survivors continue to do.

    Thanks for sharing this – I’m glad you and your daughter are fine!

  7. Gail Livingston says:

    Joan, dear, as a response to your beautiful ‘ post, I am pasting in something I wrote a long time ago about my family’s equivalent to “the Big C.I called it “The Worthy Heart.”

    (Well, OOPs, in the immortal words of Rick Perry, I can’t find my paste button within the blog format. I’ll try to attach it to your email.


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