As Breast Cancer Awareness Month continues, I’m sure that we have all heard and read many personal accounts of what this means to different families and how they have been affected by this disease. In a million years, I never thought I’d have to add my dear friend Rebecca to this group of women.
There are people who are the last ones at the party in a bad way, and then there are those who are the last ones at the party because the party probably wouldn’t exist without them. The latter is Reb. There is no ordinary outing or day with her. There is no we-sort-of-enjoyed-ourselves. There is no let’s-settle-for-a-standard-plan. I’ve known her for 25 years, since she sauntered down the hall of our dorm during that first week of college from her room to mine, and the adventures really have not stopped since. Our friendship took us on a semester abroad, through graduate school in two different cities, and then through weddings, babies and parenthood. She is my daughter’s godmother because her hold on life is infectious and exhausting and never-ending, and because I want my daughter to see what amazing women can do. A highly accomplished neuropsychologist, she is a professional powerhouse and a consummate juggler of all things that working motherhood entails. She takes no short cuts on her path to happiness, and if you are her friend, you had better be damn prepared to come along for the ride.
So when she left me a voice mail (after not being able to reach me) the first week of September to tell me that she had breast cancer, I sat in my car, numb with disbelief. People like Reb aren’t slowed down, in the way that you can’t stand in front of a moving train trying to reach its next inevitable point of interest and all it will behold. I played the voice mail twice, then a third time. Things were moving fast and furious, and her double mastectomy would be the very next week. She had just been on a fabulous European vacation for two weeks with her husband and kids. She had texted me photos of the champagne bars and the Eiffel Tower. That had just happened. We hadn’t even talked about it yet. That phone call was supposed to be a debrief on her trip, not a heads-up that she has cancer.
That call was only six weeks ago. In that time, her body and spirit have been tested beyond what any of us could have imagined. Shortly after her mastectomy, she endured a colon perforation that required emergency surgery to save her life. She learned that her cancer was not the stage 2 that they originally hoped for, but stage 3.
Wasn’t she just in Europe?
How does this happen?
I don’t have the answers. But I know, like I’ve never known anything with more certainty, that cancer picked the wrong woman in Rebecca. I spent the day with her last week and she blew me away with her grace, her candor and her strength, both physical and mental. She wanted to share some of what she has experienced so far on the one crazy journey she never signed up for. The words that follow are hers.
My husband Tom says that I fit more into a 24-hour period than most people do in a month, and that my kids do more on a random summer day than he did in his entire childhood. My friends, and their accompanying exhaustion, will attest to that. Every vacation or even day outing, down to snack breaks, are color coded, planned, researched, and of course booked in advance. This wasn’t driven by an obsessive need for organization and control, but more by a pure desire to experience every possible moment to its fullest and not miss a thing that this incredible life has to offer.
Tom joked with me in that funny-becuase-it’s-not-funny way that I’ve basically lived like I’ve had a terminal illness my whole life, and now it has actually caught up with me.
I’m so glad I’ve lived my life this way and have amazing memories, hysterical moments, and interesting stories to think back on while I’m laid up. But, the truth is, I’ve had some hard days lately. Six weeks ago I was vacationing in France on the trip of a lifetime, not knowing my body would soon be mutilated beyond recognition and my life forever changed. It has been a little like attending my own funeral, experiencing the outpouring of love and generosity that has truly been overwhelming.
Having been a neuropsychologist for the last 13 years, I’ve lived my professional life listening to patients try to cope with a variety of life-changing issues — 9/11, school shootings, the illness and death of loved ones. And what I know from my profession is that I have a choice in my brain about how to move forward. I know the strengths and resources are there to find the right coping mechanisms. And so I have to choose to tap into them. For me, they are gratitude and humor. Without these things, the lows of this experience that are so very low would be insurmountable. I can’t exist in that dark place for long. Instead, I have to find the opportunities and the light and the love — because they are all there when I look. Some days I just have to dig much deeper than others to find them.
And so, finding and channeling humor has been a critical part of coping for me. Of course my experience isn’t funny — not by a long shot — but my mind needs that comic relief to keep going. Because when you are administered large amounts of medication to deal with horrific pain, you may or may not do things like beg your husband to leave the hospital and start the afternoon paper route you dutifully upheld on a bike when you were eleven years old. Or, you might demand that your sister hand you your make-up bag — specifically the Wet ‘n Wild lip gloss — at 6:15am because “it’s about to get busy up in here” with upcoming doctors’ rounds. Really, who doesn’t want to look their best, post-colon perforation surgery? And maybe, just maybe, you start typing furiously on your blanket, demanding to know why the freaking Wi-Fi isn’t working in this godforsaken place. WTF?
The interesting thing about the lows being so low is that it makes the highs incredibly amplified as well. After the month I’ve just had, believe me when I tell you it’s a stretch to find any silver linings in this situation. However, I dropped my kids off at school the other day for the first time in weeks and as I drove away, I was overwhelmed with what can only be described as pure ecstasy. I had to pull over, as I was tearing up so much with joy that I was alive on that day to take care of my kids and finally be well enough to drive them the short distance to school and wave at their shiny little faces running in to beat the clock. It was an appreciation for life that I’ve never experienced before, and sure enough by the next day — while I was still thrilled to be able to drive them and be here for them — the high was gone. But for a day, I felt the most alive and the greatest feeling of joy and gratitude I have ever experienced.
So there it was, my “gift” of cancer.
I’m glad I was aware and open enough not to have missed it. I wish it wasn’t so fleeting, and of course I wish it didn’t take all of this pain and misery to get there. The truth is that there is so much light and beauty around us, but we are just often too rushed or distracted to take it all in. Not to make you feel like you are all on my office couch for a therapy session, but there is a level of existentialist denial that we all have out of necessity — we have to close a part of ourselves off in order to get by day to day. But once we peel it away in situations like this, when we’re forced to, it opens us up to the moments of light and gratitude.
Do I think we can all live in deep gratitude and zest for life all day, every day? No. It’s not realistic. It’s more about being open to those moments when they present themselves and taking them in, even if they are so very fleeting, and savor them when you can.
I know there are many people who have it so much worse than I do, but this experience has given me a window into what it’s like to not be able to do simple things like snuggle with my kids and feed them breakfast in the morning. I never thought I’d describe daily tasks as things that can be so enjoyable — like taking a normal shower, making breakfast for yourself or your family, moving around pain-free when you want to — in bed, jogging, dancing, or whatever it is that makes you happy. Do it as often as you can and enjoy the hell out of it.
Believe me when I tell you that your whole entire day can be amazing. Just an absolutely amazing string of awesome, ordinary moments. It’s true.
And I wish that for all of you fabulous people who have been loving and supporting me through this. Enjoy your cancer-free day in my honor. Nothing would make me happier to know that your typical daily tasks were enhanced or made better by this perspective.
I’ve learned, above all, that if you’re not fully aware of dying, you’re not fully living.
And so, I still have lots more to do with my life. This photo was from my birthday in August, and someone should tell cancer that I plan to have about 60 more of these. Oh yes, cancer, I’ll be done with you within the year, but you’ll be hearing from me for a long, long time so that I can help others do the same. This battle has just begun, and you don’t stand a chance.
You can follow Rebecca’s journey at www.mylifeline.org/rebeccascalera.