This I Believe

anne - Greensboro, North Carolina
Entered on December 27, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: illness

As I enter the second year of treatment for breast cancer, I believe that I am more than a survivor. Survivor is too small a word to describe what I have become on this journey. I am Ulysses, cast onto a battlefield not of my choosing. I navigate a perilous voyage of cannibalistic cancer cells, powerful potions, and protective herbs. At the same time I am Penelope, up night after night weeping – weeping for the bony ribs I find where I once had soft breasts, weeping for being so absent and unavailable to my daughter and husband, weeping over lost wages and staggering medical bills. Along with Rip van Winkle I nap while life passes me by. Not under a tree but in parking lots, car seat dropped back – at the conference center exhausted after a presentation; outside the Bahai Center while devotions and classes go on inside; through lunch breaks; and through my daughter’s tutoring and rehearsals. During chemotherapy my hair turns gray, I go through years of menopause in a matter of weeks, and career opportunities pass me by. Like Alice I was sucked into a disorienting world of confusing language, frantic activity out of my control, and into a pool of tears trying to reclaim my body. Ricocheting through treatment I inject toxic chemicals into my body to kill out of control cells, then go home to take a detoxifying bath, drink bamboo charcoal tea and take herbs to keep my hair and fingernails from falling off. Ingesting an antihormonal drug to stop estrogen from stimulating cancer cell growth induces horrible night sweats, sleep disturbances and emotional turmoil, so I take an antidepressant to counteract the side effects.

Before falling into the rabbit hole of this disease, I was 46years old and becoming increasingly accepting of myself. Sometimes too intense but loving my passion. Trying to balance work and family but clear about making a lifelong commitment to work tirelessly to create child development centered communities and to build bridges of unity in order to address racism and inequity. Painfully self-conscious about singing, I joined an inter-racial, interfaith gospel choir because of my social convictions, only to discover that I could relax and even enjoy singing in public. Renowned for being the least likely to ever go down the aisle again, I am somehow remarried after many years of single parenting. I am still the same woman as before breast cancer, still learning and still growing. Only now I am 47 and in this year I have discovered that I am even more – more heroic, more tragic and more comedic than I ever imagined.

My voyage has revealed courage I never knew I had, serenity that keeps me focused on doing the next right thing, humility to ask for help over and over and over again, a powerful connection to the Creator that lets me know to keep my eyes always lifted up, and self-confidence to listen to my body and advocate for what was best for me. Have you ever heard Hercules called a survivor? I cleverly tackled my labors without complaining — why can’t I be a hero too? Being a survivor doesn’t draw people to the box office. Why is Indiana Jones an adventurer while I am not? Don’t we share the adventurer’s path? Standing at the edge of the precipice, the bottomless chasm before me, I step into nothingness and wait for the bridge to appear. Instead of a bullwhip, I keep humor always in my hand. Making paper airplanes out of the pages of the three year old magazine in the doctor’s office, bringing markers for notes and drawings on the paper gowns and exam table covers, and after a long and difficult surgery using makeup pencils to write a thank you note to the surgeon on my body. I don’t belong in a survivors group – I am a member of the extreme team. I believe I am more than a survivor. Survivor is too small to describe what I have become on this journey.