Out on a Limb
As you have likely experienced, life can throw you a curve when you least expect it. You struggle to find ways of coping with the inevitable. Some people cope better than others. I know a few people who were unsuccessful in dealing with their invading demons. They are gone now – eaten up by grief, fear, sorrow or simply unable to find resilience in the face of something so overwhelming on the most personal level…a threat to their very life. I’m speaking of being diagnosed with an incurable, terminal illness. It’s a lot like reaching for a tree limb that hangs low while struggling to keep afloat in a rough current.
I know what it’s like. I’ve been out on a limb for the past nearly eleven years. Let me tell you firsthand, it gets lonely out there…. and scary! There may be helping hands around you, but they can’t quite reach you. The depth of your distress is beyond their perception. It’s a simple dynamic. Your life hangs in the balance, theirs doesn’t. They can’t be faulted. No one can know what it’s like to be in your shoes, or more literally, in your skin. To be specific, they will never feel what it’s like in your cancer damaged, chronically painful, surgically scarred, weakened and incurably diseased body… nor in your deeply tormented psyche.
Someone once asked me what it’s like to have Stage 4 cancer. In my case, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that had spread extensively to bone. I replied,
“Living with metastatic breast cancer is like being suspended over a canyon
with a raging river below you. Eventually, the ropes will snap and you’ll fall
in and die. But you don’t know when that will happen. So, you struggle on with whatever strength and resolve you have left. But the crude ropes restrict your
freedom to do what you used to do, and long-range planning is gone… forever.
You dangle there, shaking inside, while trying to overlook all the discomfort it
causes you. You hurt all over and you’re tired, more tired than you have ever
felt in your entire life. But you’re not giving up…not yet anyway! Impossibly, you
hang onto your faith and the slim prospect that someone will come along with a
way to rescue you!”
Still optimistic that a rescue may come along, I remain open to new discoveries, scientific research leading to new drugs in the pipeline, and successful clinical trials. I look around everywhere…that is, everywhere but down. The last thing I want to do is to look down. I don’t want to jinx my ‘longer than expected’ survival of eleven years. Looking down could lead to going six feet down. I’m not being overly grim or morbid. If you meander down the path of abject failure, you may find it a slippery slope.
I’ve seen it happen to some who were so frightened of their cancer diagnosis, it was palpable. You could see it in their downcast, blank stare and glassy eyes. You could hear it in their thin, trembling voices. It’s especially reflected in their word choice. There are no pledges of I can do this, or exclamations of I’ve got this! in their conversations. Instead, their worried thoughts are sprinkled with phrases like well, the cancer’s got me now, or I can’t endure this; they’re lost in the past, for they see no future. The only future references are words of defeat like, I’ll be gone soon. These hushed words are spoken by one who is preparing to fade from sight in days or weeks. It’s the slippery slope I mentioned. Once on that path, the downhill slide can be pretty rapid.
At times, their pronouncements are almost imperceptible. They want to laugh with you and enjoy your company, but its not lasting or convincing. You leave their side knowing you haven’t changed a thing in their life. I believe the body and mind are in one package. They affect one another in profound ways. If one is in decline, it can give way to the gradual phase out of the other. Is the psyche co-dependent on the body, or the reverse? Can we even separate them?
Perhaps it is best to not split atoms in the framework of this discussion. I prefer to think that my mind and body work in harmony. If one is suffering, the other will do double duty to bring it back to a state of Feng Shui... if there is such a thing as it relates to the psychosomatic realm. Personally, I feel rather strongly that an important aspect of survival is the state of your mind and your spirit.
As for my predicament, I have always been afraid of heights. So, being out on a limb with no net beneath me is the ultimate anxiety-producing place for me to exist, even if it’s just in my head. Outwardly, I generally appear strong and steady, leading the charge in fact! Looking that way has helped me to feel that way. It’s a little like women who feel better when they put on makeup. I feel better when I adjust my mind in a positive direction.
While an optimistic attitude, strong faith and an impenetrable spirit won’t cure cancer or guarantee your longevity, it can help your remaining time to be more tolerable, if not actually enjoyable. I still love to laugh and enjoy life, despite pain or physical restrictions. A 2018 article in Cure magazine by Theresa Sullivan Barger cites a study on the impact of faith on serious illness. The author claims that people with cancer who subscribe to a strong spiritual belief system report a better ability to cope. In another study by Heather S.L. Jim, Ph.D. in Cancer, 2015, cancer patients reported that religion and spirituality are associated with better physical health.
These patients tend to live longer and experience delays in their disease progression due to having a belief system in place. It doesn’t necessarily mean going to church, praying, or even meditation. What it comes down to is a feeling of having a connection, and having a purpose in life. Those who are, for the most part, isolated seem to suffer worsening physical, social and emotional health.
So, I’ve definitely opted for empowering myself to hang on in spite of my precarious position. I’ll dangle for as long as possible. When I look up, I see a spirit smiling down on me saying I believe in you. When I look around, I see loving family and friends who want me to prevail. I’m fortunate to have latched onto that branch, for it keeps me alive!
Diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer de novo in 2010, my tests showed tumors in both breasts, one lobular and one ductal, along with bone metastasis in eight locations. It takes time for cancer to spread this far, years according to my oncologist. It was missed on all my mammograms due to dense breast tissue. It also takes time to adjust to all these changes in your body and health status. You silently pray to go back to your former pre-cancerous self. But you know there is no going back. You doggedly resolve to go forward and make the best of it.
While feeling blessed to have survived this long, I did have a scare last Fall when progression in my bones reared its ugly head. My tumor count was sky high at 4,069…yikes! I couldn’t wait to start my new treatment. My most recent Pet scan demonstrated I’m NED….no evidence of active disease. So, you can say I’m still hanging on!