24 February 2013

The Whole Sky

We often mark our time here on earth with the words before and after:
before I met you...
after we were married...
after graduation...
before we had children...
before he died...
2013 did not begin in an auspicious way for me.  In fact, on the last day of 2012 I received news that swirled me up into an eddy of doctors’ visits and medical tests and procedures from which I am still quite literally recovering.

Just over a month ago I was diagnosed with a very early stage breast cancer in my right breast.  Something that no one mentioned about being diagnosed with cancer is that the first suspicion is just the beginning.  From there, you’ll be asked to run a gamut of tests that confirm or deny other suspicions.  You will be given lots or little information, and then be asked to make huge decisions.  Three weeks after my first cancer diagnosis, it was revealed that the same cancer was also lurking in my other breast, simply missed by at least two other doctors.  And on February 15th, my mother’s 76th birthday, I underwent bilateral mastectomy.  All of the cancer was removed and the sentinel lymph nodes of both sides were also free of cancer.  I am well on the road to recovery, but it will be a long process.

And so now I find that I can demarcate my life as before cancer and so very gratefully as after cancer.  There are certain aspects of my life which are irrevocably changed, altered permanently.  But not all of this change is bad.

Before, I saw the world as full of potential, for adventure, for travel, for knowledge.  But it’s not until you hear certain words spoken in reference to yourself or a loved one, words like cancer, that you really feel the presence of other potentials.  Abruptly, possibilities like pain, suffering, and death - your own and that of your loved ones - loom darkly on your own horizon.

Hearing a doctor say that you have cancer is like being thrust under water.  Quite suddenly, there is no longer enough air in the room.  And the world, as you once viewed it, no longer has the clarity it had before.  The word cancer attaches itself to nearly every thought, obscuring most of them.  I can only speak of my own experience, my own diagnoses, which are highly curable.  I can only imagine that these feelings are multiplied exponentially if your prognosis is more grave than mine.

If this can happen to me, my wild brain laments during the long dark nights, then what else is possible?  What horrors are equally likely to be visited upon my husband, my daughters, my loved ones?  These potential dangers ambushed me at night.  I’ve known for quite some time that I’ve lived a life relatively free from loss and tragedy.  I know that I was grateful for that.  It was as if, with my diagnoses, for the first time, my eyes were open, able to see things that have always been there.  These potential dangers lurk under shadow but are keenly visible with my new-found vision.  There is no way to unsee this.

But something else became discernible as well.  I truly never realized how much I am loved.  I never consciously felt love swaddling me, as a friend put it she wanted me to be cocooned with love.  I had never sensed love’s full capacity to buoy me up in spite of feeling tethered to a heavy darkness.  A string I could follow to lead myself out of the cave.

So many people have expressed admiration for my courage, remarking on how brave I am.  I don’t really know what they mean by that.  I once defined courage as being aware of the dangers that exist and carrying on anyway.  I still believe that.  But the instinct for self-preservation is pretty high, whether you are on a risky mission in Afghanistan or making decisions about cancer treatment.  I only did what I had to do in order to ensure that my life could go on pretty much as it had before.  Anyone would find the same reserve of intentions if and when you are faced with challenges.  It is not until you look that challenge in the eye, though, that you will know how strong you are.

My brother John, a cancer survivor himself who is married to a cancer survivor as well, said to me early on that cancer would test me in ways I couldn’t imagine.  This has been absolutely true.  He also said that he wouldn’t give his cancer back because it made him a better person.  I know exactly what he means.  My entire world has come sharply into focus since I resurfaced from my initial plunge underwater.  Some things that seemed important have faded to irrelevance.  Others, which seemed intangible are now palpable.  The greatest of these, of course, is love.  Hafiz, the 14th Century mystic said,

all this time
the sun never
says to the earth,
"You owe me."

what happens
with a love like that.

It lights the

Please know that your kindnesses through deeds and words do have an impact.  Do not be afraid to love, for it is the only way to extinguish darkness. 




  1. such beautiful words, cathleen. and i love hafiz dearly--he and rumi are some pretty wise guys.

  2. It took me a while to let myself read this post. I was wanting to avoid the tears I felt were inevitable. I did cry, but from the realization of the strength you have shown, and the view you have taken, instead of from sadness caused by the disease you overcame.