Last Friday officially marked the end of the first phase of my treatment plan. It ended with a blood test. The previous Monday I graduated from radiation and completed my final morning and evening oral chemotherapy treatment. The most difficult side effects are almost gone, while others continue to persist in lessening ways.
For the next six to eight weeks my goal is to get back to physical strength and health in order to be ready for stage two of my treatment plan: surgery.
Early in January I’ll enter the MRI tube to get an updated three-dimensional picture of the tumor. We’ll learn how effective the radiation and chemo treatments were in shrinking it to prepare for surgery.
While it may sound strange to hear, learning of my diagnosis and the resulting experience I've had during the last six weeks of treatment have provided me with some of the most profound and meaningful gifts of my life. The lessons and insights have been life altering in a way I could never have imagined.
And, while I would not wish this fate on you or anyone else, and as much as I’d rather not be faced with it at this point in my journey, I am most grateful for its presence and the related effects on me.
As I have pondered my experiences over the past few months, I’d like to share some of them with you. Rather than all at once, I’ll deliver them over next few days and weeks.
Here’s the first.
I thought I was invincible.
I’d never experienced any health related issues in my life besides a sprained ankle from high school football, some stitches above my eye while playing football in college and a bout of pneumonia in my thirties. I’ve had my share of dental visits, but that’s been the extent of it.
Along with that, I had a quiet belief that my eating habits, my lineage of long-lifers, my positive energy and life contribution granted me a free pass on the possibility of a major disease, at least this early in my life.
I was arrogant about my health.
And while I might have admitted that contracting a more significant disease or life threatening illness was a possibility, I lived as if it wasn't.
A diagnosis of Stage 3 rectal cancer in late September crumbled my belief immediately.
Overnight I knew my fragility. I was not invincible. No longer could I assume I’d live to see 100. This tumor growing in my body could be the death of me.
Face to face with my fear of pain, the uncomfortable medical situations, and the sometimes-humiliating exams and needles, I had to accept my new reality. I was not exempt from disease or the difficult treatment and side effects that accompany it.
No longer the one on the outside looking in, or hearing about it from others, I’m an insider now. The myriad of scary things I’ve proudly avoided for over 50 years are now mine to bear.
But this arrogance extended beyond myself. It showed up in my inward impatience toward those who might be limping, walking too slowly or complaining about their health. I often struggled to make eye contact or personal connection with someone obviously suffering or infirmed in some way.
I realize now their situation touched my deep fear. If I could’t face the possibility of disease or physical suffering in me, I could hardly accept it in others.
Sure, I could listen to those who shared their health situation and try to sympathize with them. But, I never really understood it. I could not get into their moccasins. It was easier to run from it or avoid it.
Thankfully, these last few months have demanded a new perspective in me.
So many people live with pain and persistent physical hardship every day. And this takes it’s toll mentally and emotionally. There are those who show up every day fighting monumental battles I will never know.
I’ve met individuals in the last few months who are grizzled veterans of deep and prolonged suffering. It’s never easy for them. From the first step out of bed every morning to their last breath before falling to sleep, and often throughout the night, it’s a struggle.
I know because in my small way, I caught a glimpse into what they experience on a regular basis.
These people are my heroes. They are beautiful and real.
I’m reminded of the wonderful line from The Velveteen Rabbit book where Rabbit is talking to the Skin Horse about life in the nursery and what it means to be “real.”
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
A gift of my diagnosis, treatment and the related side effects is I’ve learned to accept this difficult, crappy situation I’m now in.
I’ve finally conceded that I’m loose in the joints and quite shabby. I’ve still got my hair, but I might not if I need more chemotherapy. And while my eyes have not dropped out, my rectum soon will.
And, I’ve learned that in this, I’m not ugly.
Unless I fail to understand.
My final day of radiation. Holding my Radiation Graduation diploma. I'm going to miss this outfit.