[Written on Saturday, October 6th.]
I am sitting in “before.” Before the follow-up tests which will indicate whether I am gearing up – once again – for a battle for my precious life.
This “before” is also an “after” in that I have been through cancer before. [See my 2016 series on What I Don’t Want To Tell You About My Cancer.] I already know what it is to survive the cancer treatment trifecta: surgery, chemo and radiation (also known as cut, poison and burn). It was only 2 years ago, so I remember the pain and recovery from each of those attempts to eradicate the disease. Still. Although I’ve been through it all before, I’m not quite sure how this part of my body will respond.
“It’s not a sure thing! We don’t have enough information to freak out about yet!” I’ve been repeating to myself over and over since Thursday afternoon when the Radiology Department called to schedule a follow-up mammogram, and to set aside 2-3 hours for the appointment. Two to three hours?? That’s enough time to perform a biopsy. The follow-up appointment is scheduled for Monday [10/8] morning. Only two days from today. Two long days.
Here’s what I’m choosing to do with my “before”: a manicure and a movie with a dear friend today. A visit with a group of women to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. There’s a special Magritte exhibit. Afterwards, some dancing in Berkeley. Ruby’s In Town, a popular, funky women’s R&B band is playing. I am filling these “before” hours with activities that bring me joy. Including this writing. Because life can seem so brutally short, especially when you’re in your “before,” anticipating the possibility of a grim “after.”
I am diving deep into “before.” I am making the most of it. Just in case my life becomes engulfed by appointments, more diagnostic tests, treatments, surgeries, side-effects, recovery, dependence upon others, pain, misery and questioning, yes, questioning whether it’s even worth the fight.
I am trying to live in this moment while simultaneously holding an awareness that this moment could very well contain the last, gasping breaths of “before.” I am the walking embodiment of fingers crossed.
I know how precious “before” is. Before my last cancer diagnosis. Before my son chose to end his life. Before the break-up. OK, break-ups. Before the 2016 election. Before Hurricane Maria devastated the island of my ancestors. Before global warming. All of those “befores”: such treasures!
In a way, I’m lucky. I’ve lived 60 years and have come to appreciate, deeply, at the cellular level, the preciousness of “before”, because I have survived – several times – the consequences, casualties and collateral damage of the “afters.” I have loads of experience stepping into the new normal I’ve had to build for myself in each “after,” of learning and living with compassion towards the world, towards my fellow humans, and most importantly towards myself.
Of living in a semi-peaceful, negotiated acceptance of those singular, often tragic, moments that moved us, mercilessly, from “before” to “after.” The singular decisions – mine and others’. The singular natural disasters – in my singular body, in the planet body.
What I know with certainty, having released many “befores” and learned to be with many “afters”, is that I can do it again. I am a survivor.
POSTNOTE: This morning (October 8th) after a second set of mammograms AND an ultrasound, I have been told there is “no evidence of cancer.” The spots that caused concern in the initial set of mammograms were “ligamentary” tissue, ligaments that give the breast shape and lift. (Although at this age, I’d hardly refer to it as “lift”!) My breast is sore from all the squishing and prodding, but it’s a small price to pay for the best possible news.
It wasn’t my intention to alarm anyone, but to point out how quickly we can go from “before” to “after” and how important it is to enjoy every moment. Life can turn on a dime.