How a Cancer Diagnosis Requires Living in the Present, Looking Towards the Future and Facing the Past
I have written three blog posts about cancer. The first was about the shock and adjustment in the first 10 weeks. The second was about making getting healthy the number one priority. The third was about the liberating feeling of going around bald. Now I feel ready to talk about the deeper effect of cancer.
The truth is, the heart of the cancer journey is the sudden thrust into an uncertain future. At any age, our futures are uncertain, but a cancer diagnosis suddenly brings mortality home. It launched us into a world of looking forward and looking back. What has my life been so far and what lies ahead?
Facing the Diagnosis: My Health Takes a U-Turn
Early on, when I didn’t have a diagnosis yet and was going through cancer testing, I listened to a song by Dire Straits. In Brothers in Arms I heard the words, “Now the sun’s gone to hell and the moon’s riding high. Let me bid you farewell; every man has to die.”
Those words evoked in me a strange feeling, an awareness of my possible death that I hadn’t stopped to consider until then. Tears came to my eyes.
I thought of my mother who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we had a spectacular 50th wedding anniversary party for my parents. We were so happy that our father had survived two major cancer surgeries, and that they were both happy and healthy now.
We lifted my mother and my father up on chairs and danced the hora in the Jewish tradition. It was a joyous occasion.
Soon after, she went for some tests because she was dropping things and hitting wrong notes on the piano. To her surprise, they discovered she had a brain tumor. Six weeks after the joyous anniversary celebration, she died at age 77 of metastasized lung cancer.
My father has been free of cancer for over 25 years. Was I going to be like my him, who is now 92 years old, or like my mother, whose life was so suddenly cut short? I am 65 years old. I had just been evaluated for an insurance policy and was considered in excellent health. I even got a special discount!
Suddenly, the shiny health of my 60s took a terrible turn. I cannot say that I wasn’t scared. I was afraid of the pain and suffering that lay ahead.
I had stood by the side of several of my close friends over a number of years as they experienced chemotherapy. We shared their somewhat better times, and I was with them through their deaths.
My diagnosis launched me into deep reflection on my entire life, which has turned out to be very healing. This healing is a spiritual process where I faced my life. I began writing my memoir.
Writing has always been very healing for me. I have a row of journals on my bookshelf going back to when I was about 14. Looking back, I saw two consistent themes that connected all of my writing, family and social justice.
Reading my old journals, I realized I had been really motivated to bring good into the world. So much so, I seemed to think less sleep and more work would make me a better person and help me to bring the world one step closer to where it was supposed to be.
Now I have to laugh because we all know it is not so simple. As I read on, sometimes I shuddered, sometimes I cried about my wild antics, the risks I took, the broken hearts, and the seemingly unresolvable problems that somehow managed to find a conclusion.
I called a few old friends that I had not spoken to in years. It was fun to compare our memories – some remembered things I had forgotten completely. And sometimes we had diametrically opposed memories.
If you don’t have journals and letters, you probably have photos. There is pain there, but time smooths the wrinkles.
Looking forward is a bit different, but you can’t help it when you are in the tunnel of chemo love. What is going to happen? Will I go into remission? Dare I allow myself to imagine returning to full health? Dare I face the dread of a recurrence with a negative outcome?
Most likely, I always will live with the fear that a “shoe may drop” and the cancer might return. People always admire my positive attitude, but some days, I can’t find that cheerfulness inside me.
In the guided Tara Brach meditations I do each morning, she says to imagine the shape of a smile – it helps, but does not always work. That is OK.
I do have some things I hope to do in the future. I want to finish the new book for educators I am writing. There is also a children’s book I have been trying to get published since 1975. So far I have only a string of rejections, but I just sent it to another publisher and still hope to get it published.
I also want to keep traveling to new places, maybe Italy or Thailand. I long for pristine places in nature. Most of all, I hope for grandchildren and to watch them grow. There is no harm in having plans and hope for a better future.
For me, looking back and looking ahead has actually been a positive experience that eases my heart as I face my own mortality. I have been devoted to a path of making a difference in the world, although I no longer think doing one more thing will solve it all.
With my writing, I can contribute what I have learned to the next generation. I am ready to face my future, with compassion as my compass, but most of all, I am ready to live in the present.
Have you dealt with the diagnosis of a serious illness? In the face of an illness, how did it impact your present and influence your future plans? Please share your stories and what strategy helped you best to deal with the hopelessness that sometimes settles over our hearts.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D works as an independent consultant to schools and organizations with over 35 years as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in public education in California. With Dr. Dorothy Steele, she co-authored the book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Becki and her husband Rito are also working to develop an environmental research center on their private reserve in the Nicaraguan rain forest. They live in El Sobrante, California, and have three adult children.