Cancer has provided many lessons but none greater than the lessons I’ve received in letting go. I thought I knew something of letting go. I understood it to be a good thing: to free myself from my attachments, to roll with the punches, to accept the present moment whatever it brought; these were qualities I sought to cultivate. I laughed when we got a flat tire in the middle of rural Rwanda. I readily donated old clothes and stopped hoarding my books. I didn’t like to hold grudges and always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. I could even sometimes pretend to be relaxed when my plane was delayed (but only sometimes).
In retrospect I knew absolutely nothing of letting go. I still know very little in the grand scheme of things. Cancer has been a brilliant teacher though. It has wrenched from my unrelenting grasp nearly everything I held onto in my life. In its finest lesson it has threatened my life, the thing that I cling to the most. It has also painted for me, in dramatic strokes, a picture of the suffering that comes from my attachments, from my unwillingness to let go. There has been so much loss in the last 7 months it’s difficult to tally. I’ve physically had to let go of my health, my hair, my breasts, my identity. In my life I’ve had to let go of significant pieces of my social life, my career, my art, my graduate degree, and any semblance of control I once thought I had. The more I tried to cling to any of these things the more pain and suffering I have experienced in having to lose them.
The most recent development in Cancerland has proven to be by far the most painful, however. I was told right off the bat that I would have 5 months of chemo to start. I rearranged my life, braced myself, grit my teeth and survived, but only barely. It was the most painful and difficult thing I have ever had to endure. It felt like I was dying, over and over again, each time the life draining more and more from my body and my mind, each infusion breaking me more deeply. It was so traumatizing that I couldn’t even celebrate on my last day of chemo. I just sat there and cried for all the pain I knew lay in front of me and for all the pain I’d had to endure. Several weeks later I had a double mastectomy. I had no choice but to lose the breast with cancer in it. I chose to lose both because I knew it increased my chances of survival. It was also painful, and still is, but I survived. After that all that lied in front of me was radiation. Seven weeks of getting burned and I’d be done, free, allowed to move on and put what was left of my life back together. My hair started to grow back. My health returned. My body hurt less. I was feeling like I was finally being given back so much of what I’d lost. I felt hopeful and free for the first time in months.
And then my doctor said the unimaginable: I needed more chemo. Three months of chemo to be exact. Three months more of the worst thing I’ve ever had to experience. Three months in which I’d planned vacations, dreamed dreams of eyebrows and a full head of hair, laid out goals to complete grad school, travel, ride bikes and climb mountains. The choice was mine they said. There was no evidence of cancer in my body anymore. I could be cured for all they knew. My scans were clear. But the first 5 months of chemo hadn’t really worked. It had shrunk the tumor only ever so slightly. The cancer could have sent its microscopic ambassadors out across my body. They could be setting up shop as we speak. They could be conspiring to kill me. If I did this chemo, my doctor estimated, it would improve my chance of survival by 15 percent. I don’t know how anyone could possibly call that a “choice.” I’ll start again tomorrow.
The pain of letting go this time has been about as unbearable as it gets. The plans I made, the dreams I’d had were all things that I had been clinging to with all my might. They got me through the worst days of chemo, the saddest moments of my life, the darkest hours. I have already lost so much it felt impossible that I had to let go of anything else. And yet this is what cancer forces people to do. This isn’t even close to as bad as it gets. I have young friends with cancer who have been on chemo for years, who have to continue not because they have a “choice” but because the threat continues to loom large. Cancer persists in consuming their bodies. What I am forced to let go of is a far cry from what cancer is actually capable of taking away. It still hurts like f*&%ing hell though.
I know that completely letting go would provide the most peaceful path and yet I am human and so I am still desperately holding on to what I have left, even when those things have been completely transformed, for better or for worse, by what I’ve lost:
My physical identity: When I first cut my hair short I felt awkward and embarrassed. When I buzzed it I wouldn’t allow myself to be seen in public that way. When I lost it all I wore a head wrap even to bed. But after months of living without any hair I’ve decided to embrace my baldness. I am not sure at what point I decided it was ok. It certainly helps to have friends who think you are beautiful no matter what. I slowly but surely started to take my head wrap off in public and then one day, once it got warm enough, I decided to ditch it for good. Now I exist in the world as a bald woman most of the time. I must admit that it takes a decent amount of make-up, false eyelashes and cojones to pull this off. It’s never comfortable. I am constantly, constantly aware of how I look, of how other people might be viewing me. On some level my baldness feels like a battle scar. You don’t look like I do unless you’ve been through some shit. It also feels bold and I feel like people respect bold. I wasn’t certain how the world would react but aside from the constant stares and double takes that I can’t quite interpret the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I get compliments from every direction all day long. Yesterday while I was getting a sandwich I looked up from my wallet to find all of the workers behind the cash register staring at me. One man was just standing there with his mouth agape. One woman had tears in her eyes. She smiled at me and said, “she really is SO beautiful isn’t she?” I can’t tell if they thought I was beautiful in spite of my baldness or because of it but I like to think it’s the later. I am holding on tightly to this new identity I have created. It’s been borne of a lot of pain but it feels good.
Myself: I have always considered myself a productive and contributing member of society. In fact, at times I think I was probably too productive. I love to exercise. I love my job. I love to travel. I love to socialize. I love to photograph. I love to learn. I love to create. I love to plan and dream big. I just love to participate in the world. Cancer has taken almost all of these things away from me to varying degrees. I have held on to the things that I think I can still hold onto. I have tried to continue exercising and using my body even as it has been poisoned and cut open and sick and injured. I have kept working as much as humanly possible as my work gives me a place in the world from which to make a positive contribution. I have tried to not let cancer take away my entire social life and I fight hard for nights when I can go out and just be with my friends. I have also let cancer transform me in some new ways. I have, for example, become more honest, more open, and more vulnerable than ever before and allowed many more people in than I ever thought I’d be willing to. I have tried to integrate myself into a network of young adult cancer survivors and join young adult cancer organizations where we are giving a voice and face to what is, sadly, a growing epidemic. I have entirely changed my diet, educated myself and tried to be the least obnoxious but most convincing ambassador of healthy food choices that I can be. I do not believe that cancer has made me a better version of myself because the loss and trauma have taken their toll in too many terrible and unspeakable ways. But I am glad that I have been able to hold onto what has been most important while creating the space for something new.
My loves: I know many cancer patients who have said that they lost many friends who just couldn’t “deal” with their diagnosis. I think this is especially true with young adult cancer patients whose friends have never really had to confront cancer before. I must have some really tough friends, however, because, if anything, I think my cancer has brought me closer to many of the people in my life. I have had hundreds and hundreds of people reach out to me (so many that I have become terrible at responding so my apologies if this includes you) and dozens of people providing me with rides and meals and groceries and other incredible forms of support. Then there are the show-up-no-matter-what, talk-for-hours-if-you-need-it, be-there-for-you-through-every-ugly-and-difficult-thing friends and family. I have always been extremely self-reliant so I have never necessarily had or needed people like this in my life. To forge this level of reliance, trust and love has required vulnerability on all sides of the equation. I am, from the deepest depths of my soul, forever grateful for all of the loves in my life and for the safe and caring space they have crafted around me. I hold on to them perhaps tightest of all that I have left.
I still am and may forever be much better at holding on than I am at letting go. I think we all are. We are fundamentally built to form attachments, to care about each other and our lives. It’s how we go on existing. But I also know the pain that holding on too tightly can cause. If I had to set a goal for my life it would be to keep holding on but to do so more gently. There is nothing that exists either within us or outside of us that can’t be taken away no matter how tightly we try to grasp it. To attempt to find a way to hold on more gently, to accept more readily and to let go more easily seems like a worthy way to spend a life.