When I came home from my forty-day stay in the hospital last October, Tess commandeered my laptop and began to write. The Limit of The Cancer Curse. That was the title of her book. Her mother, her grandmother, her teacher, the dad of one of her good buddies, all of us struggling with cancer. She’s nine, almost ten now, and she’s figuring out that she has something to say. But she didn’t get very far in her book. We began to settle into something that looked like normal, even though I would still be in and out of the hospital for the next four months. I wasn’t one hundred percent, but I was home. Perspective matters, especially when every day puts you further and further away from something so traumatic. The urgency she felt to write about cancer left her, and that’s OK by me. I want my ten-year-old writing about Camp Half-Blood or how she discovers she has magical powers or what she did for spring break. I don’t want her to have to write about how she’s coming to terms with her mother’s illness.
“There is life after cancer.” One of the nurses at the cancer clinic, who is also an old friend, told me this as I was leaving an appointment a couple of months ago. “I’m almost done,” I said to her through the paper mask wrapped around my ears. “Beth, there IS life after cancer.” She looked me in the eye and spoke so definitively I was certain I was not the first to hear these words from her. “Well, if you live . . .” popped into my head and then out just as quickly. This is a trick you must master when you face a life threatening illness. You can always go to the scary place, and sometimes you can’t help it. But a few trips to the scary place and you learn there is nowhere to put your feet when you arrive. Nobody can promise you that you will live. There is no certainty. That is not the place you look for solid ground.
But she was right. There is life after cancer. And for me, so far, life after cancer looks a lot like life before cancer. Other than a slowly disappearing bald head and this enormous port protruding from my chest, everything seems pretty much the same. I have this incredible urge to purge every closet, I am simply done with chemicals and want to buy everything organic, and I feel utterly compelled to write. But other than that, we’ve slipped back into our normal routines, and in a month I’ll be going back to work. There is definitely life after cancer, and I try to remember to be grateful every day. But it will always, from here on out, be life after cancer. Even the solid ground doesn’t feel as firm as it once did. I wish someone could tell me it won’t come back, but no one can. In a weird way I wish it would so that I could finish this fight once and for all. But that’s not how it works. This is how it works: you welcome the shadow of mortality your life now casts instead of wishing it away, you stop pretending that any ground is solid and learn how to balance, you get strong and healthy in all the ways you can, you intentionally plan to make memories with your children (but you don’t tell them that’s what you are doing), you breathe, you breathe in and you breathe out, and you keep going.