Water pattered down in rivulets, snaking past the potted plants on my balcony and cascading to the cement below.
Dark gray clouds, angry with rain, had bellowed out the entire morning. My cousin and I stood in the kitchen over tea, chatting amiably about whatever crossed our minds.
My phone rang. I noticed the hospital number.
As it had been for the past six months, my stomach would clench upon seeing the familiar seven digits.
Good news was never uttered by the representative over the phone.
My body and I have a little bit of PTSD, you might say, at being told I had cancer three weeks after my wedding.
A chirpy voice asked for my name. I answered that I was the person she was looking for, and she proceeded to inform me, with intense intonation and syrupy joy, that she had received my pathology report—and she had good news. Every muscle in my body tensed. A tingle of heat emanated throughout my frame. I fed off her every word, every breath, every nuance of her voice. I replied: “Okay.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I had never received good news from a hospital. I waited for her to continue. She proceeded to go through each stage of my post-surgery biopsies; nothing in the four lymph nodes they pulled. I sighed a little, but then my muscles clamped again awaiting the next result. My breast tissue also showed no evidence of cancer cells. A lonely marker chip sat silently in memoriam of the monster it had previously ridden through chemo. Another deep sigh. Come on…I thought silently, three of three, let’s get three of three. The nurse continued on with her lackadaisical melody: “And you get to keep your nipple. There was no evidence of cancer there either. You officially, as of today, have no evidence of disease.”
My cells rocket-fired in joy. My blood ran hotter, my heart beat faster, my lungs drew seemingly lighter air. I may have actually fist-bumped my cousin. I can’t really remember (darn chemo-brain). But something magical happened in that moment. I felt as if the final heavy stone I had been carrying throughout this ordeal had been lifted. It clunked away, its ugly weight dropping into the earth, releasing my heart from its grip.
I’m still here, I thought. And I had survived a trial by fire.
My mind flashed back to the fateful day, sweating and crying in the sauna that was my car, as it baked evenly in the heat of southern California. I dreaded sitting through the traffic, looking around at other passenger, knowing that when they arrived home, they would cancer-free. I would not.
Or the day I dipped from cloudless blue skies into the dark of a Buddhist temple, and through trailing heavy streams of incense and gaudy red and gold tapestries, vowing to surrender—yet not having the slightest clue what that meant.
I remember doctor after doctor’s visit—endless hours of waiting to be revealed increasingly worse information; it’s triple negative, it’s hard to treat, you probably won’t live as long, and it will make you infertile. The crinkle of the paper examining sheet, the cold touch of another hand on my tumor, the blood racing through me anytime someone suggested a morbid outcome. My whole body recoiling when the doctors told me yet another thing I wouldn’t be able to do. That won’t be me, I would growl internally, I will be different.
The chemo drugs snaking through my veins. The rubbing of the old leather chairs in the infusion center. Beeps, clicks, streams of liquid through glittering tubes.
The agony of the first hit. The wrenching, gripping, inescapable nausea that wracked through my entire body. Adopting the fetal position on the couch, head in my hands, quietly willing my mind elsewhere as helpless friends watched. The fluttering of papers as they read, and re-read, the after-care instructions.
Burning a turkey pot pie because I had succumbed to exhaustion while cooking. Stirring ruined food and feeling a sudden blaze of anger. Screaming and cursing and falling into my mother’s arms, my cat wailing in curious confusion at my sobs.
The itchy straw, dry fakeness of the wig.
Our new financial reality as I was asked to give up my job due to my condition. Moving from our apartment. Saying quiet goodbyes to the yoga-style studio wooden floors and brilliant full-length windows—our first home as a couple.
Arriving to dark, single-paned windows. Old, sticking wooden cabinets with peeling paper lining. Ripped, warped metal screens gathering dust. Deep, mournful sighs.
No street-lamped walks home at night under fairy-lights after an exciting dinner with my new husband. No pints with friends on sticky dark tables, no karaoke in neon-colored bars.
My friends—their wants, needs, loves or losses—slowly becoming strangers to me.
Christmas alone as a couple since I could not board a plane. Waking without our families on Christmas day after burrowing ourselves away into solitude of Tahoe. Watching other families after a long day skiing; their red cheeks, full-bodied laughter, seemingly endless supply of joy and lack of worry. Eating pizza with abandon, drinking steaming beverages out of colorful mugs. I had clutched my chemo-beanie closer to my head and turned away.
More beeps. More cold liquid pouring through veins. More leather chairs creaking.
More doubling over from nausea.
More avoiding mirrors, more not wanting to catch the eye of the stranger looking back.
More not wanting to fall into despair.
Rounded and hairless, like the Pillsbury Doughgirl, the spark in her eyes dimmed.
Pulling on battered sneakers and trying to run. Having to walk. Trying to run again. Having to walk. Frustration, anxiety, anger. Sweat dripping from chemo-gifted hot flashes, attacking at all hours of the day and night.
Putting on boxing gloves for the first time. Feeling their weight—a happy homecoming.
Punching. Kicking. Running. Lifting. Finding strength in the reserves of my body. Finding hope in the faces of the surprised instructors.
Incense spiraling. Candles glinting. Me singing. Chanting.
Praying over crossed legs or bended knees for hope. For healing. For a cure. My soul begging me not to keep crying. Wishing the divine would scoop me up and carry me away. Trying to believe I would not die.
The first sprouts of hair warming my head—like the dainty fuzz on a newborn chick. Deciding I no longer needed a bandanna: the world could cope with my semi-baldness.
Seeing old friends for the first time since my diagnosis. Revisiting old beaches, feeling the salt, sand, and sunlight touch shadowed corners of my soul. Hugs deep enough to bury myself in. Laughter running rampant through the night.
Surgery. Face after ghostly face explaining what would happen. Telling me not to worry. Clasping hands again and again with my husband, as I prepared myself for any possibility. Sharpies marking the body parts to be sacrificed. Feeling mildly like an animal, preparing for butchery.
Searing pain, muscles cramping, then days of sleep. Waking and feeling able to move. Going with my family for lunch for the first time outside of the house in days.
Then the call. That one, beautiful, over-joyed call from the nurse saying I didn’t have cancer anymore.
Once that burden was dropped, I could see clearly past the determined blinders I had placed on myself to beat the disease. I paused and finally looked around myself, examining the rubble. The call had confirmed my suspicion that nothing in my life would ever return to “normal.” I was a stranger to my pre-cancerous self.
I am still here, but who I am has changed.
I used to be so anxious, so filled with vehemence at the unfairness of my diagnosis. Now I recognize that there is no such thing as fair—humankind has created this idea.
Things simply are. Life simply is.
We can be the kindest, most loving individuals on the planet but the universe has no agency to reward us.
I have come to accept this, and in many ways, it has freed me. If I have become my only judge, that is, if I remove performing good tasks in my life out of some imagined obligation to the universe, then I am actually free to pursue my own happiness. I can simply be me, free from any overarching feelings that I must be doing something to please the elusive other, whether that be a parent, partner, teacher, friend, deity or concept of karma.
This is not to say I am not spiritual—I am now deeply spiritual. But I finally recognized that no self-help book, no guru, no spiritual gathering, no special stones or jewelry or sacred space would result in my nirvana. I have to dive deep into myself to find peace. I have to do the work.
My connection to the divine is now personal, ferociously loving, and reciprocal; I will get out of it what I put in.
And over the past six months I found such beauty and peace from the divine that I cannot imagine returning to the woman I was before.
Because yes, I am still here, but I did not just survive: I was reborn.
Author: Stephanie Noble-King
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Sheila Sund at Flickr