Visiting Joanne

Last week, members of my post-cancer group rendezvoused at the Denny’s parking lot on Ocean Street, piled into Marianne’s car, and drove over the hill to visit a member of our group whose cancer has come back. Joanne had been sick from chemo and radiation and we all wanted to see her.

Joanne was thinner and her face was beautiful, wide open. She sat tall in her chair and told us her story. She let down in way you just can’t do with people who don’t know cancer from the inside out. She cried. We all did.

While we were there, I could feel my own defenses crumble. Next month will be my two-year anniversary of the end of treatment. Two years isn’t that long, but in the past few months, the specter of cancer has faded from my life. While I live with the impact of cancer every day—mostly in the form of a brain filled with vast and gaping holes—being a cancer patient has shifted from being a contemporary identity, the headline in the forefront of my life, to something in the background, just one part of my rich and textured history. I’ve found other more immediate things to fret about. And fret, I do.

As we all sat together in Joanne’s living room, one of the group members put it this way, “Once you’ve had cancer, it’s like there’s this shadow that’s behind you all the time. It looms over you and you can see it. When you turn your head, it’s right there in your peripheral vision. The more you walk out into the sunlight, the less you can see it. But it’s still there.”

For me, the shadow of cancer has receded. That’s a good thing—because for the moment, as far as I know, I am cancer free. But at the same time, being further out from cancer means that I have lost the keen knife blade of awareness that comes from living with death on your shoulder. I have returned to many of the habitual patterns that disappeared while I lived in the underworld. I regularly find myself falling into giant holes of worry and obsession, holes that provide no benefit whatsoever.

I remember talking to the friend of a friend when I was first diagnosed. Her husband had died and been brought back to life twice in the period of a few months. When that happened, she said, everything felt precious and every moment seemed like a gift. “But within a couple of years,” she told me, “We were back to all our old ways and our old habits. Nothing really changed.”

That will never happen to me, I thought. But it has happened to me.

Visiting Joanne was a reminder. Any one of us in that room could be sucked back into the cancer vortex at any moment. Two of the seven of us have had a recurrence. One member of our group has died.

Facing this reality was sobering for me, as it always is. But in a strange way, it was also comforting. Having that shadow re-emerge, as a visible presence in my life, felt good simply because it is real. It represents the truth. It reminded me, once again, what matters and what doesn’t. It reminded me that this is the only life I have and that I’d better be spending it the way I want to. It made me take a hard look at my priorities and my thoughts and the way I spend my time. I was reminded that life is precious and that worry is useless, and that the time is now.

If only I could remember that.

Names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of group members.

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