March 20, 2015

What it Means to Live Fearlessly.

arizona desert

The sky was ablaze with fiery shades of red and orange as Nicole and I began our journey through the Arizona desert.

With the top down in our rented, red convertible we joined hands and raised our arms in a show of defiance. We had been planning this trip for three months and nothing was going to stop us from our zen retreat to Sedona—not the four hour flight delay or the never ending east coast snowstorms, not even my cancer recurrence.

As soon as my doctor walked into the room, I knew the results of my latest CT scan weren’t good. “There is a very small lesion on your lower left lung,” she said. I’ve been battling Stage IV Cancer for four years, since the age of 35.

This is my third recurrence.

Although my body began to shake slightly, I leaned in close to her. “I have a trip planned in two weeks with my best friend. Can I still go?” I asked. Since I’d be resuming chemotherapy, I wasn’t sure if traveling would be the smartest option. “Of course you can.” she said. “You’ve been on this treatment before, you know what to expect. Just don’t push yourself too hard.”

I know what she meant though: You’re not a normal person anymore. Just remember you have cancer.

I called Nicole immediately from the bathroom of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital. Tears streaming down my face, I could barely get out the words. “They found something,” I told her. A brief moment of silence on the other end. Then quietly she said “Okay. What does this mean?”

I explained I would be back on the chemotherapy to shrink it, then have a procedure to burn it off. Telling her this was almost secondary. What I wanted her to know was that our trip was still on. Cancer had taken enough of me—half my liver, part of my colon and my blissful, youthful ignorance.

It wasn’t going to rob me of joy.

In the days leading up to our departure, fear crept in. The “what ifs” whispered their toxic mantras in my ear:

What if you have a reaction to the medication?

What if you’re too tired to do anything?

What if something/anything happens that deviates from the norm?

I sat in my bed, paralyzed by my own thoughts. I looked at the vision board I created, the one with the picture of the Red Rocks and the caption “What It Means To Live Fearlessly!” splashed across it.

I let the words wash over me and settle into my soul. Just then I received a text from Nicole. “I have a what if for you. What if this is the best trip of our lives?” I meditated on her words and instead of thinking about all that could go wrong, I thought about all that could and would be amazing. The convertible we were renting, finally feeling the warm sun after a truly brutal winter, our vacation rituals like “chocolate bedtime,” where we stay up late in bed like teenagers, eating candy and laughing until we cry.

The happiness these thoughts brought me was so much stronger than cancer, stronger than my fears. To me, that is living fearlessly. It’s not living without fear. But acknowledging the fear and saying “Fuck It, I’m doing it anyway.”

So off we went to Sedona.

We landed in Phoenix around 4:00 PM. After getting our luggage, rental car and a much needed Animal Style burger and fries at In N Out Burger, we hit the road. Sedona is a little over two hours from Phoenix and it’s mostly desert driving. Nothing much to see except for the billions of stars that illuminate the nighttime sky. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Nicole looking up at the sky with the excitement and awe of a child. I was so overcome with love and gratitude for her, for the trip, for everything.

Through my tears, I somehow managed to get out the words, “I feel so fucking alive right now.” She grabbed my hand as we sailed down the highway singing Coldplay’s A Sky Full of Stars.

We met with a shaman who shared stories of the canyon spirits. We did breath work to release our inner blockages. We climbed mountainsides to sit in a simple church and pray in hushed tones. At dusk, we traveled to the Airport Vortex and watched the rocks change from gold to rust, as the sun settled in for the night.

Standing on the cliff overlooking the canyon, it struck me how we are all looking for two basic things; beauty and connection. We could have easily watched the sunset from dozens of different spots around Sedona. But we, like so many of the tourists who gathered there, had a desire to share the experience; this breathtaking creation of nature.

Momentarily rendered silent, we stood reverentially, held captive by the earth’s beauty.

As per the shaman’s instructions, I found a pebble the size of my tumor. We held it in our hands, said a prayer and buried it in the red dirt. I rested my head in my hands. Four years of fear and struggle and riding this emotional rollercoaster can break me sometimes. Nicole wrapped her arms around me and put her forehead to mine. “You are not alone,” she said. Once again, her words settled into my body like salve on a wound. As we walked to the car, I kept turning to view the canyon and mentally thanking it for all it had given to me and all it beckoned me to leave behind.

We decided to begin our voyage home extra early, allowing plenty of time to stop for every cactus we deemed picture worthy. A two hour drive turned in three and a half. Along the way we sang and we laughed, we talked and said nothing. I knew when a particular song lyric would strike her and gave her space to absorb it. She sensed when I was too deep in my own thoughts and pulled me out when needed.

The ride, like our friendship, was fun and effortless.

Landing back in yet another New York snowstorm, we said our goodbyes quickly as we raced to our anxiously awaiting families. On the drive home, I thought about how, morning and night, I would count my pills out and she and I would say a prayer as we held the pills in our clasped hands. Not a prayer like the ones we were taught in church, but one of hope. Hope that the medicine is working and my body continues to heal. Hope that we have a lifetime of journeys together and countless chocolate bedtimes shared. Hope that love and friendship are more powerful than cancer.

So while I may never be “fearless” when it comes to cancer, I can still fearlessly live and love. I can open myself up to the beauty of the world. I can cry at a sunset, stand in wonderment at the sight of a billion stars and allow the weight of the world to drift away with the desert sand. I can love with an unguarded heart; knowing the energy I put into the world has attracted the most incredible people who love me as fiercely as I love them.

I can do all of these things and more because I am alive.

I am so fucking alive.




Beating Cancer by Being Present.



Author: Kathleen Emmets

Editor: Renee Picard 

Photo: Moyan Brenn at Flickr 

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