Sunday, November 20, 2011
Day 563: Flying Home
In the early days of this blog, I wrote about a flight that Gabe and I took from Maui for our belated honeymoon. I described how the plane dropped 5,000 feet suddenly, and that we thought we would die. I mentioned how unbelievable if felt when we landed--and I meant that literally, not in the way that the word "unbelievable" is so often overused. I was telling this story as a parallel to describing how crushed and terrified I was to learn that I needed to have a re-excision, that my margins weren't clear and it was possible that I still had cancer in my body. That blog is still painful for me to read.
This week, I flew for the first time in almost four years. I used to travel a decent amount for work, though as I related in the blog mentioned above, I've always been scared of flying. Perhaps scared isn't the right word--I just don't entirely trust it, and I grip the armrests with takeoffs, landings and especially with turbulence. While cancer might have cured me of my fear of heights (still true--I used to hate looking out the window on an airplane, but I found that to be my favorite part of this trip), apparently the airplane issue is still there. I can't say that I planned not to fly for so long, but life just got in the way of traveling. I was pregnant, then I was nursing, and I had learned from previous experience that I hated flying while pregnant and nursing because it's so goddamn annoying to deal with the airport, security, declaring your milk and trying to explain to an infant where the hell you are. Then, when Augie was 11 months old, I found out I had cancer, and I started on the course of 8 months of treatment. When I got back to work in January, there wasn't much happening that required travel. And with the kids being so little, and us having the option of driving to a beautiful lake house that is both free and appointed with so much of our stuff we barely need to bring anything with us, we've had no motivation to vacation outside of Wisconsin. So it was by accident that so much time passed between flights.
So here I was easing into it with a short flight to Atlanta--or so I thought. Unfortunately, we were flying during a time when Atlanta had tornado warnings, and the winds were so strong that a tree was uprooted from the ground, flew into some guy's car, and killed him. To say our descent was "bumpy" would be an understatement. In fact, the pilot didn't attempt to use those words. He said "our last thirty minutes are going to be rough. Everyone sit down and put your seatbelts on."
If flying alone didn't give me lymphedema, my extreme armrest grip might have done the job. The flight home to Chicago was also "bumpy" due to high winds, but not nearly as bad. God how I hate turbulence. But I learned something from this: the vast majority of people are with me on this, and I am in fact better able to handle it than many others.
I took a cab to the airport with a guy I had met at the conference in Atlanta. We have kids that are the same age, and obviously we are in the same field, so he was easy to talk to; we started gabbing about the long wait at the airport, his dread of the long, non-direct flight back to San Francisco. I told him about the turbulence on the way out, fully expecting him to think I was some kind of wimp. I said, people were swearing and shouting. How does that help? A few people yelled "oh shit!" and I mean look, we were all thinking that, but you're not supposed to SAY it. My cab-mate started cracking up, talking about how scared he would've been in that situation and how he would've wanted to slug the guy swearing. He told me that he hates the small, commuter planes, that he travels all the time and still isn't used to those drops. Our cab ride turned into an entertaining bit of conjecture on the sociology of flying, and I felt strangely connected to him as a result. Then he picked up the tab, I thanked him, and we both got ready to do it again. This time, I sat next to a woman who was much more afraid of the "bumps" than me. Or, at least not as good as me at hiding her fear. She was praying and talking nervously to me. I felt connected to her too, and it made me realize something. It's not the lack of fear that is impressive. It's not even impressive to be afraid of something and do it anyway. It's not bravery to grit your teeth and just wait to land safely. The lesson is, I think, to recognize that almost everyone else is just as scared as you, if not more so (except for those weirdos who can sleep through anything, but we'll leave them aside for now), and that you will feel less afraid if you try to talk them out of their fear. You are not fooling yourself, nor anyone else, in that situation, but you realize this at that moment: the plane will probably land. If in some horrible twist of fate it does not, you will not die alone, and every single other person on that plane will be leaving folks behind that they love and cherish as much as you love and cherish your people.
Perhaps it's the same with cancer. There are too many women with breast cancer; there are even too many who have it too young, like me. But everyone's fear is the same, at least for a time. Some have more to fear, if their cancer has metasticized. Those are the women who are allowed to shout "oh shit!" or take a nap, or have five mini-bottles of vodka, or talk your ear off, or do whatever they need to do. Those are also the women who know, when they look at you or talk to you, that at one point they were like you, and they thought they had beaten it (unless they were initially diagnosed at stage 4). They understand that you understand that you might be them in the future, if that makes sense. We can all see ourselves in each other, for better or for worse. It would be nice to say that we are each going through this alone, and in some obnoxious cosmic way each and every person on earth is going through this life alone, but with breast cancer, it wouldn't be true. One in seven women will fly this plane with me.
The day I arrived in Atlanta, I had to go straight to a three hour meeting, without being able to stop at the hotel. I was exhausted, and hungry. That night I met up with a friend, one of Gabe's closest friends from college, the woman he was hanging out with before he met me for our first date, the one who eventually helped plan our wedding shower. She had a baby about nine months ago, and she and her daughter picked me up at the hotel and took me to get a burger. We had a very nice evening, and talked about all sorts of things. At one point we were talking about friendships and how men seem to have trouble making plans with their friends when they're married, expecting us to do it for them. The conversation evolved and for some reason I was talking about friendships that had been altered by cancer, including one or two where people just seemed utterly unable to deal with--or even acknowledge the reality of--what was going on. And she said, I just don't get it. This might sound bad, but if someone can't deal with it happening to you, what would she do if it happened to her?
This insightful statement came from a woman who told me, right after I shaved my head and asked for votes on my various hairstyles, that I should just go bald, as I was the kind of woman who "could pull anything off and still look amazing." Regardless of the truth of that, these are the kind of people that are worth keeping in your life. Here's the thing: she was right on both counts. Cancer, tragedy, anything that is possible can happen to you and those who you love. And yes, I pulled it off, not because I am amazing, but because I had some bullshit to deal with and decided not to let the focus be on my hair (for once) and it was my prerogative to do that. I pulled off the neon green wig too, and wearing my own dead hair, and these various strange short hairstyles, because damnit I left the house that way and I had CANCER so I get to do what I want with my hair.
I'm glad that I'm writing this blog, and that other people I care about are not. I would rather it didn't exist of course, but in some ways it's easier to deal with your own life because you really don't have any other choice. You might be able to turn a blind eye to someone else's, or wait until things go back to "normal," but you can't do that with your own vessel, your own time. You can't wait to deal with yourself.
Flying brought me into these strange thoughts, but another development has taken them a little further. I mentioned in a recent blog that I've finally received a prescription for physical therapy. Don't get me started on how ridiculous it is that you can have lymph nodes removed, muscles cut, large areas of skin burned with radioactive material that plumps up your skin like a turkey pumped full of hormones, and no one figures you might need physical therapy. Doctors will acknowledge that yeah, you might not be able to lift your arm, but you're fine! I swear it seems like you can break a toe these days and get PT. Anyway, I went in for my evaluation, and I learned some interesting things. I learned that I don't have any range of motion issues that qualify me for physical therapy, but because I still have a high level of pain and my daily activities are affected (daily activities include things like, I have a crazy son who plays rough and accidentally kicks or punches me on that side and I am doubled over; not being able to do push-ups doesn't count), I do qualify for 4-6 sessions. I learned that I have some weakness in my upper back that is probably just due to having a desk job, but that can affect my mobility and pain. Moreover, my main issue is apparently weakness in the chest wall muscles caused by radiation and, get this: It might never get better.
Hearing that actually made me feel relieved. It's not ME, not some weakness or wimpiness on my part, making me unable to do certain things a year and a half later. It's just reality, and we will do what we can to deal with it. I haven't started my weekly sessions yet, but they will mostly focus on breaking up the scar tissue. Apparently being thin is (yet again) a negative in a sense, as I have so little fat on my breasts or my chest that I can always feel the scar tissue, unlike women with larger breasts or more body fat. It feels good to have a plan, and to have some validation that my pain and frustration is based on something real, not in my mind.
It also feels good to find out that despite everything, I'm in pretty damn good shape. After a particularly sweaty spin class the other day, the instructor came up to me and said "you've come a long way since you started--good for you!" I could've taken that to mean that I was a pathetic spinner at the beginning and I've gotten a lot stronger, which is true. But I knew what she was saying--that I've come a long way, in general. That I'm not bald anymore, not completely exhausted from the fatigue that menopause brought me into by only allowing me to sleep an hour a night. I'm stronger, in a lot of ways. After months of avoiding pilates I went to class today and found that I'm actually more flexible than I used to be, though that is definitely a relative statement. The young woman running the class pulled me aside and asked me what I've been doing, because I look so great! And so strong! And I think, she meant, so healthy! So much like a person who isn't dying!
A woman I know from the neighborhood saw me in the grocery store yesterday for the first time since she brought my family dinner while I was going through chemo. She seemed so genuinely happy to see me, and she asked me how I was doing: "So is your prognosis good and everything?" I had to stifle a laugh. All I said was yes, I think I am fine but they need to watch me closely for at least another year or two. That is, after all, the only way to answer that question. If the prognosis is not good, you surely aren't supposed to admit it in the grocery store. I can't hold that against her at all though, as I know she was partly saying, you look so well, I can't believe you ever had cancer. She was thinking, you don't look any different from me. She was thinking that life is sometimes impossible, and yet that doesn't make it less real.
Whenever I hear someone say how great I look, I think about the women who hear the same thing who are not stage one, but stage four. I think about the women who will always have cancer, who will always be cancer fighters. There is no way to tell who these women are--there is no scarlet C, after all, on your forehead. There is also no way to tell if you will be one of those women someday. How can people not realize this? After all, sometimes a thing is obvious--some people with epilepsy, for example, have convulsions in public (as I did, only one time), while others have hundreds of smaller seizures a day (as I did, as well) that no one else notices, and their experience with epilepsy, while different, is still there.
At a benefit for my rowing team a few weeks ago, Gabe commented that you would never know that any of the women on the team had breast cancer; you would never know who was on the team and who was not, if you didn't already know. And that is no more true in that situation, when everyone is dressed up in fancy clothes, than in any other. There are people all around you who have suffered or are suffering, there are people everywhere who have had a hell of a time or are in the middle of their own version of hell, and most people are just not going to let on, they are not going to give you the satisfaction. No matter how things turn out for any of those people, the truth is, they have all come a long way from when they started. What other choice is there in life? The short way is not usually an option. Of course I didn't say this to Gabe. What I said was this: "Well, we're all doing our best with what we've got. What else can you do?"