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Illuminating The Hallway: A Search For A Life After Cancer (Part One)

The vulnerability is like a plague, constantly exposing me and creating the immediate awareness of my true self without the layers of protection I've so deeply laid throughout my life. And it's the relationships that I forge (both the invigoration of old and the infusion of new) throughout the process that will hold me accountable to remain in this truth.
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Long and Dark Hospital Hallway
Long and Dark Hospital Hallway

Something serendipitous happens when diagnosed with cancer, something magical.
When it happens everything aligns to one aching, breathless moment. Time stops. Clarity in all things arrives. In the wake of disaster there's an uncanny way in which things fall into place.

It could be described with the same vain that Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of The Living and Dying, as the "first step in the practice of meditation...purif[ying] the ordinary mind, unmasking and exhausting its habits and illusions, so that we can, at the right moment, recognize who we really are."

In a flash, the truth of ourselves is revealed, the veil slips away, leaving us standing with our hearts exposed. On that day of diagnosis, existence becomes a stop gap, a space time continuum to deal with the problem at hand. The whole Self devoted to understanding this disease and staying alive.

A freight train coming down the tracks, the voice conveying the news over the phone rips through the air. My ears and brain grasping only bits of information. I ask to have details repeated. "I'm sorry," I say, "I want to make sure I get it right. My family will be asking".

And again, the news comes in and the kind voice on the other end quavers with the repetition, as though he wants to be sure he's saying it correctly as well. The phone feels like there's miles between reality and imagination. The Doctor and I both know there's an unknown vastness set before me.

Emptiness fills my exposed heart.

And so the process begins. Lives begin to align. People come in and out of daily life like angels. Showing the way. Illuminating the hallway.

An oncologist's office, surgical and medical alike, is different from any other office you'll ever be in. It's quieter. Thicker with sadness. The waiting room is a buffet of various stages of illness with some of us closer to death and some of us further away.

Sitting with a stillness in the exam room, a nervous laugh escapes from me as my husband, Jed, and I talk to fill the space. What are the kids up to? What will the doctor be like? Have you talked to your mom? How long will we wait? I pick at my nails, bite my lip.

The nurse floats in, dark hair. Glasses. Blue scrubs. Twenty something with a swagger that Boston girls have when young, employed, and about town. She asks a barrage of questions about my height, weight, occupation, pain on a scale of 1-10 -- each question giving her a better gauge of who I am, today, on this physical plane. She tells us that the doctor will be right with us, sit tight. She breezes out the door and the stillness of the room sets in once more.

A few feet away Jed sighs and I close my eyes to block out the grey walls and unfamiliar medical equipment. Thirty-five feels like 16 and we wonder how it is that we, still so new to life, are sitting here.

Dr. Fauci appears, almost as tall as the doorway itself. His black hair and glasses remind me of every one of my Italian ancestors. I find myself wondering if I might catch a glimpse of who he is if I could see through his lenses. Could I see that he has older children and a wife with impeccable taste? Would there be a reveal that in another year his tenure at this hospital would conclude and his research would move him to the midwest? But then he's in front of me, peering down from above, ready to begin.

He starts the conversation with purpose, explaining the next steps. Initial surgery, a sentinel lymph node biopsy, to see if the cancer is traveling beyond the initial tumor site on my neck.

The words keep coming from his mouth. They're clear and precise, but become garbled in my mind as I retreat to distraction. Feeling extra energy in the room, my subconscious extends outside of me through a passageway revealing instinctual information not to be ignored. The writer, Anne Lamott, says it best when she names this subconscious intuition as "[the] voice that is quite clearly telling you what's going on" and I know in this moment that the cancer is in my lymph nodes. Statistics mean nothing in this case, intuition trumping science in this moment.

I inhale deeply, tuning back in to hear Dr. Fauci telling us another surgeon--one specializing in this area--will do the job.Wait here. Dr. Emerick is in surgery now but will be with you as soon as he's done.

Waiting, an essential part of cancer, is a practice of trying not to fill time and space with thoughts, stories, and speculations. It's a meditation in every aspect of the word. It's hard work to stay in the present. If I let it, my mind will take over, spinning its wheels until an inescapable anxiety sets in, crushing my chest cavity and infusing me with an acute awareness of what is unfolding within these walls.

After an hour and a half of trying to protect my mind from itself and its stories, there's a new face in the doorway. White coat floating behind him due to the speed of his arrival, I notice his surgical cap, blue scrubs and black Dansko shoes. A sense of lateness to an appointment that hadn't been on his schedule in the first place. An apology for the delay nonetheless. We are almost the same age. He holds his hand out in welcome, smiling as though we are old friends picking back up from where we left off years ago. It's in this handshake that I understand that this is the surgeon. The right surgeon. The quarterback leading the game.

For the first time in weeks I feel kind of at ease.

As the steps and gameplan land on my ears I find myself standing toe to toe with a different me, an unrecognizable stranger. The sense of initial ease remains but the severity of the situation at hand sets in. My first instinct is to tell a joke and laugh inappropriately, to cut and run, in turn allowing myself to speed away from the discomfort, this raw nature exposed for all of us to see. I've never been good at vulnerability. Time going into slow motion is the only thing keeping me right here, in my shoes, forced to see what's really happening. It's in this slow motion that the acute awareness of what's important and what's frivolous becomes disturbingly clear.

In this beginning, I don't realize that I'll never really be done with cancer. That, unlike a condition that's permanently solvable, cancer remains a mainstay in the back of my mind, lymph nodes will light up on PET scans, and "watchful waiting" is part of my ongoing vocabulary. "Remission" is a pleasant word that really means "in between treatments".

The vulnerability is like a plague, constantly exposing me and creating the immediate awareness of my true self without the layers of protection I've so deeply laid throughout my life. And it's the relationships that I forge (both the invigoration of old and the infusion of new) throughout the process that will hold me accountable to remain in this truth. An accountability that keeps me from running. And it's with this staying power and these connections built on trust, guidance and friendship that I'm anchored in towards a cure.