Category: Mental Health

The Conundrum of Cancer: or, ruminations of the past year

A year ago, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I’ve been trying to sail to a shore of solid ground on which to stand, yet, I am still sitting in an ocean with the emotions and feelings of diagnosis, surgery and prognosis. Or rather, I am finally learning how to lean into them. 

If seen on the street by a stranger, that person wouldn’t know what ails me. Most people who know me don’t know, either. There is hair on my head, flab and rolls on my body, color in my cheeks, and I’m still alive. It’s easy for others to forget. For me, the reminder of my condition comes with every breath.

From the outside, there are no discernible changes, other than a weight-gain that will take a year or two to lose. I have the same job, live at the same location and have the same friends. I do have a new car, but that was inevitable as the Saturn has over three hundred thousand miles on it and was becoming unreliable. I guess that means I, too, have over three hundred thousand miles, and maybe I am equally questionable. There IS a fog that has come with menopause that is more noticeable to me than anyone else. At least, that is my hope.

Planning for the future has mostly stopped. Leaving Sonoma County and California are no longer considerations. Nor is finding a job outside of my current organization. Medical insurance has become precious—perhaps too precious, but I’m not willing to let go of that ever-binding ring of security. My writing feels solid… or at least, the practice seems so. My priorities are creativity, health, and loved ones. Travel, if it’s affordable and manageable. I go to work, run errands, exercise when I can. There is a simplicity to my life that creates a path to my center.

Still, there is an indescribable unease. Unheimlich, but not uncanny—English doesn’t have a true word. Am I serving the world by sitting on a boat in the middle of the sea? Am I serving myself? I am writing and that is my calling… is that enough? Or is that the problem? I have been anchored for too long with being too much or not enough. Neither are relevant, but they act as phantom limbs, mooring me. I know this tension will go away, but there is a fine balance to being at home with oneself, and it’s easy to capsize.

A friend and I were talking about feelings the other day. She asked if my life was creating joy and peace. I had to pause and consider the question. I don’t strive for joy and peace. Or bliss. Or happiness. They are no longer considerations. I strive to make my body healthy, and to put words together that sound good and convey meaning on a page. To eat well, exercise, go to work, and add value to my world. But I don’t aim for particular feelings. Sorrow lives in my chest, waiting for test results cause my lungs to catch and hold, a full moon lights my entire body, writing satisfies my fingers and soul. Loving and missing my daughter sometimes breaks my heart with their weight. Sitting on a boat in the middle of the ocean has given me time to be—with everything. There is no need to create circumstances—feelings and emotions are already there in being alive.

The Conundrum of Cancer: or, redefining self-care

Radical self-care doesn’t look like a spa day—it feels selfish and awkward, although I remain unapologetic in this practice.

It is sitting still on a boat for one, in an ocean of emotion and unknowing, with no land in sight. I peer into the water, scrying for glimpses of my future, and into the sky to find navigation. The fish, reflections, sun, and constellations remain silent. I do not know when I will reach shore or what I will find.

As I rock in my boat, I start to say yes to serving the world. I feel the gentle hand of My Muse on my shoulder, and in a quiet voice says, “No, not yet. You have to learn to serve yourself before you can return to serving others.” 

My Muse is a jealous muse, demanding that I honor her before all others. In the commandments she has placed into my hands, my writing comes first. I will not be dissuaded from this belief, no matter how hard the boat rocks.

An hourglass sits on the edge of the boat, but the sand doesn’t move. Loved ones on the shore leave footprints as they drift away, and I let them go. In solitude, I hear the story of my heart.

There is a wildness that hums and throbs where my womb used to be. I do not know its name or nature, but I must feed and protect it through gestation. When we reach solid ground, this wildness will birth, then we will burn together in the boat, meld into one and fly.

The Conundrum of Cancer: or, sitting still in the dark

Years ago, after I had my first bout of depression, I wondered if that is what the Greeks meant by the hero’s journey: going into the darkness (labyrinths, hell), fighting monsters and demons, then coming back to the light, victorious. As I contemplate depression and cancer, I’m beginning to see the similarities. The bleakness. The inability to plan for the future. The obsessing. The lack of control. Feeling lost and disconnected. Knowing that I need to do something, but not knowing what it is. Traveling to meet Hades.

However, this journey is different from the one Greek men and demigods experienced. I may be floating down the Acheron into the Underworld, but I’m not pushing away or pulling into the boat the swirling figures in the water. Rather, I am quietly observing my demons with curiosity: cancer, familial relationships, failed friendships, heartbreak, depression, regrets, mistakes, sorrows, the past, the future. I am sitting still, lest I fall into the river and drown amongst the monsters of my creation. The boat keeps propelling me further into the unknown, and I’m not trying to turn it around or stop it—that would be futile and folly. This is the voyage I’m on, even though I didn’t opt to step off the dock.

The last time I saw my medical oncologist, he made a comment about me going back to my life after radiation therapy was finished. I didn’t tell him this, but there is no returning to my former way of being. My body and outlook have changed, and my priorities have shifted. The plans I made for this year have dissipated—at least, most of them. The two that remain, ironically, are my health and writing. And, ironically, both force me to sit still. Radiation leaves me fatigued, and it’s difficult to write while in motion. So, I wonder what lessons are to be learned, and ponder how to shape my life—do I dry dock and disassemble, or do I stay on the boat and flow with the currents?

This conundrum currently has no resolution. Charon is rowing, while I maintain balance. We still haven’t reached the light.


The Conundrum of Cancer: or, the D word no one talks about

I have cancer and I am depressed. Or maybe I should say, Depressed. I was doing okay with my diagnosis and recovery. Returning to work wasn’t ideal, but I was coping with the stress. And then I was told that not only was I anemic, but that my iron levels are low (half of the low end of the normal range). The thoughts that passed through my mind included, “FFS, not something else,” and “what if there is something wrong with my bone marrow—what if the cancer has spread there?”

I don’t know that anything is wrong with my bone marrow, but until March 1, I didn’t have cancer. I didn’t even consider it a possibility because my doctors didn’t mention it. Now it’s everywhere, even if it isn’t. And it’s depressing.

Granted, I didn’t start down this path suddenly after getting my test results. It began while I was home recovering: “What is the point of going through treatment? I’m going to make it through this, then in another year or two, it’ll be something else (this “something else” has been a consistent pattern since I moved to Sonoma County in 2000, but that’s a blog post for another time). Maybe I shouldn’t do the radiation and take my chances with the cancer. With any luck, maybe it will kill me and I can be done with life.” This thought started becoming more frequent, along with waking up every morning with a desire to stay in bed and cry all day. I didn’t, and I sought help, but that’s not the point.

What I’ve come to realize is that the world I live in, generally speaking, is concerned with the physical. When people ask me how I’m doing, what they are saying is, “how is your body after surgery,” and “how is the radiation treatment making your body feel.” My doctors never mentioned that cancer patients slip into depression and that I might want to pay attention to my emotions as I go through this process. Them and their staff don’t check in to see how I’m actually dealing with the experience of having cancer and being treated for it. Neither does anyone else. 

This isn’t a criticism or chastisement. People aren’t conditioned to ask about mental and emotional issues. It’s taboo and uncomfortable. No one wants to hear about the impact of depression for a wide variety of reasons. The only time there is open discussion about this subject is when a celebrity commits suicide. Beyond that, it’s quiet. Even as I type, I wonder if I should post this to my blog and share it, and I question my point and the relevancy of my words. However, I think that helping to create an awareness, and maybe a dialogue, is needed. I don’t know what the right phrasing is for someone to ask the question, but it still needs to be asked, sincerely and without judgement. Depression isn’t a weakness—it’s a symptom.

Addendum: This isn’t a cry for help, but more of an observation that depression does not get talked about in the context of cancer, or anything else.