I had just completed a course of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. I was being fed through a nasal gastric tube. The skin on my neck was blistered and peeling from the radiation treatments and required daily bandage changes. I could not eat, drink or swallow. I was nearly bald on the sides and back of my head from the radiation treatments, and had only about half the hair on the top of my head. I was unable to make it down the stairs, outside to the horses and back up the stairs without breaking into a full body sweat and requiring a rest. I was afraid that my life wouldn’t return to some semblance of one that I wanted to live. I had many moments of despair and self-pity.
And yet, I found moments of gratitude. Gratitude for the friends and animals that shared my world. Facebook became a lifeline for me as people reached out to encourage me to move forward. Friends told me stories of those who walked a path similar to mine and were back out living their lives – changed, perhaps, but no less fulfilling than before their treatment experience.
I am still dealing with several side effects. My salivary function is only about 15% of normal, and this can make eating a challenge. Soups, sauces and gravies are my friends, and if my meal doesn’t contain them, I will need a lot of chewing and a drink to get it down. I wake up each morning with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I can’t spit out the thick saliva I wake up to without the help of a tap to wash it away. I can’t lick an envelope. I am very likely to eventually lose my teeth and perhaps my jaw due to reduced salivary and circulatory function from the chemo and radiation. But I am still here.
Some of the other side effects of cancer have been surprisingly beneficial, as I have amended some childhood beliefs that simply don’t serve me.
I used to think that vulnerability was weakness. It was important to me that no one but my very closest friends ever saw me cry. I was taught to be very cautious about letting anyone know that I cared about them enough that they had the power to hurt me. I needed to be seen as “large and in charge”. Powerful, invincible. Although I believed that this made me admirable, in reality it pushed lots of people away as they sensed my protective barriers.
Internally, I knew that I was not immune to being hurt by others. I felt like a fraud, trying to prove myself, to measure up to some expectations put on me by someone I couldn’t really identify.
When I was diagnosed and began treatment, I began the process as a warrior. Then I became so weak that I couldn’t battle any longer. Just getting through the day required all the energy I had, and sometimes more than I had. I looked for a new way to fight, and I discovered that acceptance of the situation I was in would require every bit as much courage as battling it. I accepted that I might not survive – that either the disease or the treatments might be the end of me. And I turned it over to the universe to kill me or cure me, although I remained hopeful I’d survive.
This journey has made me aware that I have a story to tell, and a contribution to make to the world by telling that story. It has made me more human.
In my blogs, I talked about the challenges I was facing. I remained optimistic, but did not deny the sadness, weakness and frustration. People told me I was courageous in my willingness to be authentic. Brene Brown states that we believe that vulnerability makes us appear weak, and yet when we see someone behave in a way that demonstrates vulnerability, we see them as courageous. To me, it didn’t feel courageous. The only other choice I had was to give up, and I was not ready to do that. It doesn’t take courage to do what you feel you have no choice but to do.
The people who love and support me were impacted by my diagnosis. They may have imagined attending my funeral and going on without me. They were scared, too, and they wanted to do something. I realized that they genuinely felt good when they could help me. When I asked, most came through in spades. A few didn’t, but I accepted that they had their own reasons and battles to fight and seeing me in such a vulnerable state might be more than they could handle.
Just at the time I felt weakest, I realized how many people loved me. I had never felt so supported, and it lightened the darkest of hours. For so much of my life, I would have expected that being this weak and needy would have made people run, and it did, but they ran towards me instead of away from me.
True strength requires the courage to let others know that you care about them. It means opening your heart to them, and giving them the power to hurt you. It also means knowing that when they do hurt you, that you have the strength to heal yourself and forgive them.