A Pretty Little Blue Pill

I wrote this in response to a writing prompt I gave my students, “A pretty little blue pill.”  

I don’t have a pretty little blue pill, but I do have a tiny little white pill, a shiny bullet-shaped red and white striped pill, a jelly-filled golden pill, a smelly, clear capsule filled with yellow powder, a rough brown oblong pill, a white elliptical pill, a tiny blue thyroid pill and so many others, I can’t remember them all. Before I had cancer, I had the tiny blue pill and an occasional Advil. Now I have mastered the art of swallowing a whole handful of pills with just a couple of sips of water–2 or 3 ounces tops. Now I take pills four times a day. Now I have four plastic pillboxes, each with seven plastic compartments, one for each day of the week. One of these plastic pill boxes is labeled AM. Those are the wake-up and take-them-an-hour-before-eating pills. Then there are the breakfast pills, to be taken with eggs and spinach or a bowl of cereal or last night’s leftovers, whatever I’m eating for breakfast. Then there are the dinner pills and the ones right before bed–four mixed mushroom capsules and a melatonin.

Some of these pills come from the pharmacist, designed to raise my thyroid, regulate my moods, reduce my hot flashes, and improve my chances of survival (after 10 years an additional 5%). In exchange for these benefits, I am tired, mentally disoriented, emotionally flat, and have no libido. The other 200 or so pills I take each week have been suggested by my cancer nutritionist and ordered for me by my homeopath. With acupuncture, these additional therapies cost me $500 a month and I believe they are worth it; they are supposedly changing the conditions in my body that enabled the cancer to grow in the first place.

The straight medical world would not sanction these additional pills (and insurance, which I am lucky to have, certainly does not pay for them), but I’ve read the research, and I’m voting on the non-Western medical world. I’ve already done what the Western doctors had to give me–two surgeries, 6 months of chemo and 6 weeks of radiation–and that little white pill I take each morning with my breakfast. But I don’t want to stop there. I’m determined to do what I can on my own to increase my chances of living to see my children grow to adulthood. I go to acupuncture each week, I cook the herbs she gives me that make my house stink, I drink down the wretched stuff every day, I take the pills, I rest, I eat what I am supposed to and avoid eating what I’m not supposed to eat–at least most of the time.

I also wear a silver friendship necklace, given to me by my friend, Nona. She wears a matching one. Hers says BE. Mine says FRIENDS. Every time the clasp migrates to the front of my throat instead of the back of my neck, Lizzy comes up to me and straightens it. As she spins the chain around my neck, she says, “Make a wish.” And every time, my silent wish is the same.  I want to see you grow up. I say it fervently, a quiet prayer, and then I let it go. I look in delight on my 12-year-old; I relish her presence now. And I hope that a bridge of nows stretches far into the future. But of course I don’t know. None of us knows.

One woman in town finished a very rough course of chemotherapy. She’d had a cancer that was lethal; but somehow she had beat it. They had a party with balloons and cake at her oncologist’s office on her last day of treatment. They were celebrating; she was one of the lucky ones. She left the office, buoyed by their well wishes, anxious to begin her post-cancer life. And on her way home, she was hit by a car and died.

None of us know what our end will be. And yet I do everything I can to increase my chances. The big plastic bag full of pill bottles, the weekly ritual of filling them, little plastic cube by little plastic cube, at our yellow kitchen table. I snap down the lids. I cook my herbs, 35 minutes per boil. I nap on my acupuncturist’s table with hair-thin needles stuck in my legs, my feet, and my right ear. I go to my bi-weekly support group. (Research shows higher survival rates in women who go to post-treatment support groups). I do what I can.

Mostly, I live each day as fully as possible. I don’t think much about the future–six months, a year from now, maybe, no more than that.

At least once a week, someone comes up to me, someone who hasn’t seen me lately, and they say, “Wow, you look really great.”

And I say, “Thank you.”

 “How are you?” they ask.

 And I say, “I’m doing really well.”

And I stop there. But there is so much more I could say. How what is happening on the inside doesn’t show on the outside. How I am back to normal, yet I can never be the “old” normal again. How I feel strong and grounded, yet definitely not the same. How my hands are no longer grasping for what I do not have. How my heart is full of gratitude for little things I didn’t notice before. How part of me always yearns for solitude in the midst of a busy life. How I do not count on a future that I have no right to claim. How there is a stillness inside me that has walked and emerged from the other side. How cancer has changed me.

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