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Red Meat for the Cancer Survivor's Soul

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After reading my essay written this past winter entitled The Precarious Space Between Chemotherapy and Work, a friend and supporter of mine who is of my parent's generation, and whose wife was battling a third occurrence of cancer at that time, empathetically, yet cautiously, wrote to me expressing concern. He had noticed a "thread of anger" in my writing. He professed amazement at "how many judgments and putdowns I could fit into one blog." He admitted to having to step away from my blog as he and his wife fought her battle. And he repeated an axiom now all too familiar to me--his wife's struggles were teaching him how to live more fully.

I greatly appreciated his candid approach to reaching out in the midst of his own struggle. I certainly felt defensive of my character and my writing, but his confession of stepping away was a reality check. His critical eye, cause for reflection. His accusation of anger...

He is right to separate himself from my blog when needed--so do I. For me, blogging my journey with cancer has become absolutely integral to my well being, and yet I've slowly come to accept the obvious--not even close friends and family read it all of the time. By its nature blogging cancer is touch and go, and believe me, it comes in all kinds. On one end of the spectrum, blogging cancer is an off-putting, seemingly desperate narcissistic, vitriolic deluge of emoting rants and GIFs. While on the other end an overly wrought inspirational cuddle party of self-help reductionism. Crisis coupled with push button publishing creates this in the best of us.

Be that as it may, at its best, blogging cancer is a serious and necessary business. These stories are precarious and profoundly visceral, appropriately offensive and uncomfortably challenging. They are oddly therapeutic and necessarily empathetic, darkly humorous and dangerously insightful, hopelessly tragic and utterly life-giving. Life's revelations, and so to Tumblr's, reside in between the extremes.

Still, his thoughts furrow daily right into my rut. No one ever put it so bluntly. He is right about me. I am angry. Too often.

I could have just written back, Yes, you are correct. I had never truly pondered how much anger I live with each day. I couldn't get his letter out of my head--especially as my anger only grew hotter with time. Anger is not a thread running through my life--it's a steel cable.


A few months after he wrote, my heart stopped beating.

As I lay in my hospital bed only hours after my heart attack and tried not to lose my shit, I struggled to comprehend the enormity of what I had just survived. As doctors and nurses swirled, details began to seep in and a narrative coalesced. I became certain that I should be dead.

The doctors informed me that the heart attack was likely due to the radiation I received to eradicate my lymphoma three years previous. However, I was, or thought I was, smart enough to know that radiation couldn't possibly be my whole story. Guilt overcame my entire being--diluting and consuming any semblance of joy or gratitude for my incredible resurrection from the dead. I retraced my steps. I faced my facts. I scanned my memory for clues as to how I could have possibly allowed it to come to this. I wasn't satisfied with the hospital's investigation, so I launched my own investigation into my character. And like all of us, I was found wanting.

It didn't take long to remember my friend's words. After all, anger is a usual suspect. I am angry. Too often. Anger is my malformation. It distorts, aggravates and exaggerates. It diffuses experience and infuses stress and anxiety. And stress, anxiety and anger tend to be in a cozy relationship with heart attack. So there you have it. My heart was left with no other choice but to attack. I relented and pleaded guilty--an open and shut case.

Or was it?

Near death experiences tend to fabricate nearsighted vision, and I am in desperate need of a long view. I can't ignore my own culpability, but I can't use it to obfuscate the reality of my situation. And the reality is that I will never know why my heart quit at thirty-four years of age. I will never know why my lymph nodes mutinied at thirty years of age. It wasn't and never will be fair. My view is forever askew.

My gut reaction to my friend's words: Damn right I'm angry! So is everyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer. If they tell you they aren't angry, they're lying. Or they've tapped out. Cashed in their chips. Found Jesus or Buddha and/or lost their mind. Maybe that's why you have to step away. No one should ever experience what your wife and I have experienced. We have lived a nightmare, and I, for one, am angry.


While some may think otherwise, I've historically considered myself a fairly rational and easy-going person. Whenever possible, I take what I'm given. I take a licking and keep on ticking. When life hands me lemons, I rest, then I zest. If there is another set of shoes near by, I go out of my way to step into them. I've always had, even at my worst, the desire to do it better next time. To just keep showing up. When I have lived these ambitions, I become nearly whole. I can find peace in strange and sinister places.

However, even before my latest stem cell transplant, I began to realize that as cancer and its treatment relentlessly and meticulously wore at my body and mind, and therefore my ambitions, I became increasingly quick to anger in a way I thought I had left behind with puberty. I called it irritation at first. I was just being a little snippy. Easily annoyed. Who could blame me? I could pass it off on treatment-induced physical and mental weakness, and any number of side effect-managing medications harboring untold side effects of their own. It was easy to believe it was just a phase. It wasn't something I considered too deeply. I had enough on my mind.

Then it kept happening. Little things sent me, because big things wouldn't excuse me--crippling post-transplant side effects and insane health precautions, sanitized surfaces and necessarily avoided reflections, perceived personal shortcomings and endless appointments, mounting debt and incomprehensible insurance. All of it, a boring, mind-numbing, and insurmountable emergency. I stressed every domestic detail while my wife worked overtime, and worried all the time, for a hapless and hopeless public school system. All the while, an endless stream of Airbnb strangers enjoyed our condo, helping us to make ends meet while we ducked and dodged our way to bed in my in-law's attic, without a place to call home.

It didn't matter which treatment or medication I was on, or how many deep breaths or exercise breaks or vacations or moments alone or drinks or lorazepam I took. It didn't matter how many times I reminded myself to just let go. Anger came out of the pours of my everyday in ways both subtle and regrettably grandiose. My coping mechanisms couldn't keep up with my crises. And it bothered me most that my greatest love and constant advocate, Aura, was too often the recipient of all this misplaced anger. You can fake it till you make it with everyone else, but you can't fake it at home. Thank God she's a social worker.


And here's the kicker...

Anger has also been a steel cable in my desire to live.

When mental and physical faculties fail in times of crisis, we dig deep into our arsenal for something to keep us on life support. When we have every right to give up, why do we make the choice to dig in?

I believe that in the direst of situations, anger has a necessary and powerful place in the alchemy of our emotional arsenals--albeit very specialized. I believe that my malformations have at times been my salvations. A last line of defense before I acquiesce. Imbuing me with the quiet calm to lie still for hours on end in my hospital bed as drugs make hay of my insides. Bestowing me with the necessary strength to sit up in bed as my blood counts plummet and another fever rises. The guts to take another saliva-less and tasteless bite. The humility to puke in a garbage can and shit in a cup. The patience and presence of mind to wheel my infusion pole into the bathroom and wash off the awful stench of chemotherapy in the shower and begrudgingly change my underwear and hospital socks. The narrow window of strength and desire to slowly stand and leave the seclusion and bleak comfort of my hospital room and take a lap in the hall. Endurance for another lap. And then another lap. Until that fateful day when I keep my gaze low, walk out the door, through the city, and open the door to my own home.

And when another treatment fails, courage to ante up and do it all over again.

Then, in February, my heart fails. With my arsenal emptied, I have absolutely nothing left to give.

But I am in the right place, and in the right hands, at the right time.


That's basically where I stopped writing this past June.


As the promise of summer lazily descends on Chicago, I feel a welcome measure of enthusiasm. I'm beginning to sense that a full life is not just possible, it is possibly likely. Thanks to my friend reaching out, cardiac rehab and a massive dose of backyard self-reflection, I am beginning to whittle away at the steel cable of my anger. I doubt I will ever live without a certain measure of anger in my life. My hope is that I'm learning to live with a heart healthy portion. Anger just might be red meat for the cancer survivor's soul. Let's hope, like red meat, a little bit can be a good thing. Perhaps anger is to passion, what doubt is to faith.

It's no coincidence that I am writing again, and I believe I am on the cusp of finishing one of the best essays I've written to date, not to mention the most personally therapeutic, but I can't bring myself to post it. I feel the need for more time on the conclusion, perhaps some work on cancer as trauma. So for a week or so, I put it on the shelf.

I am beginning to contemplate the idea that to experience cancer, or any health emergency, is to experience trauma. I see anger as a natural manifestation of trauma--forging a malformation of my idea of safety--a belief that cancer is merciless and its coming for me. An idea confirmed by every failed test and every shortened breath. And even the realization feels like healing. I want to share my writing, these new ideas, and offer my gratitude and my well-wishes to my friend and his wife. I want to thank him in person for the email he so hesitantly began with the words, I write this at the risk of being one of the jerks you speak of, either loving, empathizing, prying or judging. Maybe more than one at once. He signed off, I'll probably regret sending this. He couldn't have possibly known the path of healing his words would lead me towards.


And then, the house of cards collapsed again.


On June 17, my friend's longsuffering wife shares the devastating news that as a result of all of the treatment she has received, she has developed Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a cancer that is particularly expedient in wreaking havoc on the body, so she needs to receive inpatient chemotherapy immediately. Due to her already weakened health from previous treatments, she is not a candidate for stem cell transplant. Her prognosis is assuredly bad.

In one short month she is gone.

She was taken from us on July 20, 2015, at the age of 67, leaving behind her husband, three children, six grand children, and her own parents.

While I regrettably never had the opportunity to get to know her well, it is abundantly clear she left an indelible impact on everyone who was lucky enough to have met her. She and her family generously chose to share a portion of their experience approaching her death on social media, and I am forever grateful. I mourn for all the life she never got to live and to give.

It's been three months, and I'm still struggling to find a single appropriate word to write.


Shortly after her mother's death, my friend's daughter shared these timely words with her father:

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed."

― Maya Angelou


We can be. I can be. Be and be better. For they existed. And so I whittle away at my steel cable.


I would be remiss if I did not thank my friend, and incredible writer and editor, Todd VanderArk for his impeccable advice, keen eye for misplaced semicolons and honesty. My only regret is that he won't be able to edit that sentence. He also writes me incredibly encouraging emails when I need them most. Thank you, friend.