A Quick Note: My free cancer quick-start guide is days away from being released! It’s turned into a much bigger project than I anticipated, and I’m SO happy with how it’s coming along. This is one of the most important things I’ve created and I’m so excited to share it with the world.
I’m also very appreciative of the many readers who made suggestions and volunteered their time to proofread and do the graphic design. Stay tuned because you will be hearing from me again in the next few days with the final product!
After moving back to my parents’ house in June, it felt like I slowly came back to life.
For months I had struggled through a terribly stressful experience (that included breaking up with my boyfriend of five years and becoming homeless after my heartless landlord kicked me out of her house, stalked me, hired private investigators to spy on me, stole my security deposit, and then threatened to sue me for more). Now, in the safe and nurturing environment of my childhood home, it felt, finally, like I was alive again.
Over the following weeks I developed a routine that I loved. I would wake up in the morning and make two hard-boiled eggs. While the eggs were cooking, I’d boil water for green tea and microwave a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal. I’d make myself a smoothie or pour a glass of juice. I’d sit down and enjoy my breakfast more than I can imagine anyone has enjoyed anything in their entire life.
After living out of a carry-on-sized suitcase for six weeks… let’s just say being in a settled-enough space to create a routine felt like a vast improvement.
If my mom or dad were home, I’d turn to them, throw my hands up in the air, and say, “This is the best breakfast I’ve ever had in my life! I’m so happy!”
I said it over and over, but after seeing me curled up in a ball on the couch for most of the past six months, I don’t think they got tired of hearing it.
Afternoons were for lounging. Maybe I’d sit in my parents’ garden with a book or my computer. It would be quiet, but I felt I could hear all those little sounds—the buzzing of bees as they flew around the rosemary bush, the crunching of dry grass as deer picked the ground for food, the constant “whoosh” of the freeway a few miles away. I felt so joyous and appreciative for where I was and everything I had. I don’t think I had felt so happy in my entire life.
You might not have guessed that at that moment I was in the middle of battling an aggressive form of lymphoma, and was undergoing one of the more arduous chemotherapy regimens that exists.
I could no longer work, could no longer drive, could no longer take care of many basic needs. I looked in the mirror and saw a bald, atrophied, chubby-faced version of myself that was a far cry from the Elana I used to see. So how could I be so happy when so much I loved about my life, so much that identified me, had been taken away?
I was so happy because I had gained far more than I had lost.
I was happy because a month before, I couldn’t eat because either my mouth was covered in sores, making eating excruciatingly painful, or I was nauseated to the point where I’d throw up anything I’d eat. Meal times were a cruel joke; I would be starving, and want nothing more than to stuff my face with a hamburger, but instead would have to eat unflavored popcorn, waiting 15 seconds before putting each kernel in my mouth to make sure I wasn’t going to throw up.
Or, I’d have to perform an elaborate ritual to numb my mouth before eating something soft, bland, and unsatisfying (first, take two oxycontin and wait an hour; then, swish numbing mouthwash for at least a minute to numb entire mouth—also taking away my ability to taste; then, apply numbing liquid to each individual sore; finally, eat meal, but make sure to finish within ten minutes before everything wears off).
Now, I could eat with gusto! I could taste my food!
One day I went out to lunch with my mom and birth mom at a nice outdoor cafe. I was in such anticipation of the meal that I found the menu online and picked out my meal ahead of time. I savored every bite; I savored the conversation. I ordered a glass of chardonnay even though it was the middle of the day (why the hell not?). I ordered the biggest dessert on the menu even though I had ordered an appetizer, too (why the hell not?).
I was happy because whereas before I felt crippled by chronic body pain, my pain was now well-managed with medications and alleviated as I healed in this better environment. It no longer hurt to stand up, to walk, to do basic tasks around the house.
I could get my own glass of water. I could make my own breakfast. I didn’t wake up hurting so bad I almost couldn’t breathe, grasping for my pain medications by the side of the bed (because their effects had, unfortunately, worn off at some point in the middle of the night).
I was happy because I could now focus enough to read a good book (or a trashy magazine), I could get off the couch and go for walks in the near-perfect Bay Area weather, I could go to the bathroom without feeling like my butt was being stabbed with a kitchen knife (I wish I could say mucositis just affects the mouth… but sorry, it doesn’t). How could I not feel like my life was wonderful? How could I not feel blessed?
Yes, cancer has caused me pain. But—more notable than the pain is the appreciation for life my illness has given me. There’s nothing like the threat of having your life taken away to make you appreciate the small joys all around you.
Why We Suffer
We suffer not because there is no joy in our life; we suffer because there is joy all around us that we fail to notice.
We miss the joy of eating because we’re distracted and don’t pay attention to our food (or, even worse, we criticize our bodies and deny ourselves delicious and fulfilling food, and associate eating with guilt).
We miss the joy of spending time with friends because our minds are a million miles away worrying about some problem at work.
We miss the joy of solitude and quiet because we’re used to filling our attention with constant streams of information and entertainment, to the point that slowing down causes discomfort and boredom.
It’s an unfortunate reality that most people don’t realize how good they have it until something is taken away. It took getting cancer for me to realize how great my life actually is.
While I certainly don’t recommend waiting for something horrible to happen before you start appreciating your life, a difficult experience can be an opportunity to wake up to life, in the same way being slapped across the face or having a bucket of ice water thrown on you wakes you up to life.
Accepting the Ups and Downs of an Authentic Life
If you are human (and, as a blog reader, I assume you are), your life with be filled with highs as well as lows. There’s no faster path to disappointment than to try to grasp onto pleasure as if you could string one happy moment after another for the rest of your life and never feel any pain in between.
A month or two after I came back to life, I restarted the hardest round of my chemo course and descended back into a world of physical discomfort. It all came back—the mouth sores, the nausea, the inability to enjoy food, the chronic pain. I had to take doses of pain meds high enough to kill a small animal just to get through my day. My mom was relegated back to the job of getting me my glasses of water and preparing my food (thanks mom).
But even though I was in pain, I didn’t feel like I was suffering (although I might have made my parents suffer a little bit with my pain-induced irritability).
I knew the pain was temporary. I knew soon I would be done with that round of chemo and would once again be able to experience the joy of eating, of good company, of, you know… just being.
Today marks the last day of my hardest round of chemo. I can already feel the pain starting to lift, food starting to taste better, life starting to feel more joyous.
Photo by Dmitry