Today I am starting a look at my "17 Points of Clarity." This is the title of one of the essays I wrote for the book my friend Jenny and I wrote about our breast cancer experiences after our diagnoses less than a month apart in May and June 2008. It tells the story of how the 17 points came to be. Then, I will take a point a day for the next seventeen days.
This essay was written for the segment Jenny and I dubbed "rear-view mirror." It was the last of 12 essays we each wrote on 12 different aspects of our experience, but we put it early in the book. We were trying to capture what only hindsight can capture. Even as I read through this essay again, I realize that the time (over 3 years) since I wrote this, has further deepened the insights I have. As I read I also sensed the joy and relief that I was feeling in that second year after my diagnosis. That joy and relief are not as intense as they were, but they create an undertone of gratitude in my days. They help me not take my health or my life for granted.
I try to keep my posts relatively brief. There are exceptions and today is one. Enjoy the read.
Seventeen Points of Clarity
In a way, my cancer excursion began in my car. It was there that I took the phone call that confirmed my diagnosis. The next months would change me in fundamental ways, but it’s still me I look back at in the mirror, rear-view or other, each day. At that moment, and for months to follow, there was plenty of uncertainty on my horizon. I would end up changed physically and emotionally in ways only imagined at the outset. Driving down the road from one appointment to another, literally and figuratively, the horizon continued to be broad, expansive, hard to grasp. But what I saw in the rear-view mirror after each appointment, each surgery, each treatment, was a tighter picture with more clarity. Today, what I see has me living life “into the blue,” living life more fully.
Jenny and I first helped bring each other through these various cancer events, then helped one another process it all in the aftermath. We don’t want to keep reliving our cancer experiences from a “staying stuck” mindset, denying, feeling self-pity. We want to keep moving forward and seeing what the rear-view mirror can tell us. After all, cancer is now a part of our life experience, just like marriage, motherhood, and our careers. Let me put it this way: I prefer to distance myself from cancer experiences like chemo and surgeries, but I can’t distance myself from having experienced cancer. That has been inexorably transforming—like marriage and motherhood have been.
Chance brought Jenny and I together just when we needed one another. Chance put my husband in my life and running marathons on my goal list. Chance also made the numbers seventeen and five significant in the thick of dealing with cancer and the months after. My first and third surgery dates were on July 17 and December 17, 2008, exactly five months apart. Five months after my bilateral mastectomies, May 17, 2009, I ran my first post-cancer half-marathon. Exactly five months later, on October 17, 2009, I ran my first full marathon on this side of cancer. Those were fifteen transformative months from July 17, 2008 to October 17, 2009. What did those four pivotal dates look like as I approached them? What did they look like in my rear-view mirror?
Early on, it seemed July 17, 2008 and my first cancer surgery would never arrive. There was an excruciating period of waiting, wondering, and fear from confirmation of my diagnosis on May 29 to this date. I felt at the mercy of time, at the mercy of medical professionals, and at the mercy of a fear like none I had known before. When I wasn’t going crazy in those weeks, I was marveling at my Higher Force’s sense of humor. Long in need of lessons in patience and acceptance, I was now getting, though reluctantly, some very effective ones.
I woke up on July 18 a little groggy, but feeling a huge relief. I was no longer a rookie awaiting my first big league at bat. A couple days later when the pathology report delivered both good and bad news, I was still mostly relieved, but beginning to realize that this game of cancer treatment for me wasn’t going to be a short one. It was going to go into extra innings. Crucial knowledge about what I was facing had been gained. The sense of urgency was gone, leaving with the invasive tumor that had been removed.
Time, my enemy prior to July 17, became my friend between then and December 17. After a failed re-excision, my focus turned to getting through four rounds of chemo and deciding what course of action would be next. There would be a third surgery. What would it entail? I lived in a sort of limbo those months. Limbo imposed by the chemo spread over two months. Limbo imposed by indecision, then by a decision I felt right about, but that was still difficult to wrap my head and heart around. It’s pretty hard to look ahead to losing body parts—but not as hard to look ahead to closure, to relief, to moving on.
December 17 and the surreal quality of becoming a double amputee came and went. In the last days prior to that surgery and the first days after, I wasn’t seeing a very broad view. It was all about the mastectomies, the relief, the drain tubes, the loss, the grieving, and the healing. But it didn’t take long for the view in the rear-view mirror to become clearer, for the colors to deepen. Continued relief and steady progress forward brought clarity. There was also significant gratitude that surrounded that relief and healing. Gratitude was never too far away at any time during these most difficult months, and that made a substantial difference in how I came through.
The next five months leading up to May 17, 2009 were about adjusting and accepting on many fronts, mostly having to do with my new flat front. Adjusting to putting on and taking off my prosthetics. Adjusting to breast-less sex. Acceptance of my flatness where before had been breasts big enough to fill my size 38C bras. Acceptance of new fears and hang-ups, but not the all-consuming type. Adjusting and accepting merged as my training mileage was upped for the half-marathon I was aiming for. It was easy to adjust to the freedom of running minus two running bras. It was much slower emotionally accepting my new running physique and what others may or may not think of it.
The last days prior to May 17, 2009 became mainly about the milestone—five months to the day since bilateral mastectomies. It was again about gratitude—to be able to reach that point, bounce back quickly. No bouncing boobs as I ran anymore, but bouncing back from cancer. What a triumph! Donning my pink shirt and white hat with pink ribbon that morning, I faced my first flat-chested public run. That night I went to bed humbled. Humbled by the exhilarating run I had that morning. Humbled by the apparent lack of attention my flat chest got. In ways, that day was my final clearance for post-cancer take-off. New normal meet Lisa. Lisa, meet your new normal.
Jenny and I were about to actually start writing this book, after some months of discussing the idea, and getting through our various cancer events. About to start putting pen to paper and reliving some of the lowest lows I had ever felt, here I was coming off one of the highest highs I had ever felt. Not dwelling in “I had cancer and I’m a survivor” mode, I was relishing in life as a post-cancer warrior. That remains my daily plan. The writing process hasn’t pulled me back down to dark depths of despair. It is helping me heal. It is cathartic. I know Jenny would agree.
I got a new pair of glasses that spring, literally, but I got a new pair of glasses figuratively too. Family, friends, recovery, running, writing—my front and center items—stay front and center more easily than they ever have before. Gratitude continues to flow from a source that has me waking up each day appreciative for the day. Waking up knowing that I will most likely be able to handle whatever comes my way. Waking up vowing to live my life doing it the proper justice—remembering those still suffering, remembering those who have paid the ultimate price, taken by this disease.
The summer of 2009 was vastly different from the summer of 2008. We had great weather for marathon training. My husband and I embarked on numerous training runs together. The early essays of “Into the Blue” were composed, and the “into the blue” philosophy became firmly entrenched in my life—stay hopeful, be grateful, keep moving, look for signs, listen for messages…
My job began for another school year and I was refreshingly unfazed by it. October 17 was on the horizon, surrounded by clear blue, and I was ready. For each of the marathons I have run, the excitement and anticipation leading up to marathon day has been substantial. That was ramped up even more prior to the Kansas City Marathon. To be running my first post-cancer marathon ten months to the day since having both breasts removed, to be running it with my husband and the goal of finishing together, left me full of the best kind of anticipation.
It was fitting that my husband and I would head to Kansas City alone. He has been a stellar source of support from the days leading up to diagnosis to the present moment. I have always been an intense and introspective person. That became more the case going through cancer surgeries and treatment and all that came with those. He was there with the kind of support, patience, and acceptance that I needed. It was fitting that we wanted to finish this marathon side by side, after what we had been through together in the previous fifteen months. In the back of my mind, there was also “let’s do this now because we don’t know what next year will bring” thinking. Not in a “doom and gloom” way, more in a “live life richly because beyond today none of us knows what we get” way. The hat I wore for the marathon was the same I had worn on May 17. It has a pink ribbon embroidered on the front. Running in triumph myself, I was also running in memory of and support for others taken by or touched by breast cancer. I had “Into the Blue” embroidered on the back of this hat before the marathon. Breast cancer came roaring through my life, but it is “into the blue” that has my back now.
It ended up being my most pleasant and enjoyable marathon experience to date. Maybe because it was my first post-cancer marathon. Maybe because how fast or slow I was running didn’t matter. Most likely it was because of the magnitude and depth of gratitude that was coursing through my body that day. I try to keep it coursing every day.
That gratitude keeps the mirrors of my life clear, reflecting lessons back to me. Today, the rear-view mirror of my life and the blue in it have brought into focus these points of clarity. Things I knew before but know at a deeper level now. Things I didn’t know before, but learned through hardship or in unexpected ways. Things that amaze me in their simplicity, in their genuine life-giving power. Some deal directly with cancer, but they all deal with life, sweet life. Seventeen points of clarity to take with me each day as I live “into the blue.”
17 Points of Clarity
1. All any of us have is today.
2. For me, fear of the known is less than fear of the unknown.
3. Having to consider my own mortality helps me cherish my life.
4. Gratitude is a good pair of glasses to wear. It makes everything look better.
5. Laughter is always possible.
6. I can live without my breasts. Just don’t take my heart and soul.
7. Endorphins are free and very effective.
8. You can’t beat having a friend by your side.
9. Faith and a pen can trump fear and despair.
10. An open mind allows inspiration in.
11. My body is just a vehicle. The life in it is what counts. But I take care of both.
12. Drink lots of water. Then drink some more.
13. Three words . . . keep priorities straight.
14. My husband is a blessing in so many ways.
15. Children and pets are great teachers.
16. Life isn’t always fair, but it’s still precious.
17. All any of us have is today.
Now when I drive down the road each day, I try to do so in silence for a few minutes on both ends of my commute to and from work. Looking ahead, looking back, but focusing on today, the road directly in front of me. I dream. I smile spontaneously at times, not caring if anyone sees me. It’s not all easy-flowing day in and day out. I’m human and life still vacillates, but after having experienced cancer, I accept my humanness, and everyone else’s, better than I ever used to.
At my mid-life, having hit a stalemate in pursuit of several of my aspirations, I needed a shake-up. Jenny calls it her mid-life blur. I knew that blur too. Cancer became our vehicle of transformation, coming along and taking us for a ride. That ride over the next months was sometimes dark and bumpy, but often there was light and hope. The seventeen points of clarity were brought to me on this expedition by others, through others, always under the direction of a Higher Force looking out for me, even when I was angry and reluctant.
Chance propelled Jenny and I on to the same path. A path of camaraderie and mutual support, but also a path that our two writing souls could not ignore. Sometimes our vehicle of transformation felt like an out-of-control roller coaster, sometimes it was more like a boat on a calm, blue expanse of water. Always and still, we marvel at how our mid-life blurs came in to focus. Two women in their mid-forties, two writers, two acquaintances, then two breast cancer diagnoses. We are minus three breasts and a youthful sense of security, but let us tell you what we have gained.