namasté, grim reaper

This month marks 10 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. I was 31, working for a magazine called Breathe, doing yoga, and living a relatively healthy life. It was unexpected. So unexpected that I spent months with a persistent cough, slight fever, then night sweats, an upset stomach and feeling generally awful. I thought my liver chi was rising, again. You know how it is. I thought it was stress. Or unresolved issues about something. So I went to acupuncturists, massage therapists. I drank nasty herbs. I pulled tarot cards. I journaled. Then I finally went to a “real” doctor whose nurse told me “You people never push hard enough” when I held the cotton ball over where she had just drawn blood. The doc herself sent me home with cough syrup. But she did call back a week later when my blood work came in and sent me to get an abdominal ultrasound, “just in case.” Her lab was booked for a month, but I made an appointment.

But I kept getting worse. More coughing. My colleagues pushed me to get checked, again. I finally went to the magazine’s health columnist, an MD who’s also an acupuncturist. He looked over my blood work and shook his head. A lot. “There’s something really wrong with you.” He said it over and over, like a mantra. He palpated my belly. He injected me with some vitamins, which normally perk the unperky right up. They did nothing. “You’re seeing my internist—tomorrow morning.”

I went. He sent me for tests. First that ultrasound. The ultrasound doc, an older guy who asked if I was single while he wanded my belly, got serious mid-swirl. He saw stuff. A lot of stuff. He turned kind. He went animal on my insurance company to get me a same-day MRI. (Which I think is like getting last-minute seats at Per Se.) He did. As I walked out his door, he handed me my file and said, “Let’s hope this has a happy ending.” At the MRI I looked around at the clinicians’ faces, trying to read them. I could. And it wasn’t good. But it also got them suddenly very nice. Offering me water when I got dizzy, telling me not to rush.

Finally, the internist called me back for my results, in-person on a Friday evening. Everyone at work found this as ominous as I did. But we were closing—a late night ahead. I said, “I’ll be back unless I have some terrible disease or something!” No one laughed.

The doc barely looked at me during a cursory exam. When we got to his cramped office with a giant mahogany desk, he squirmed in his seat, shifting papers. His opener: “I don’t mean to be the Grim Reaper, but…” Yeah, really.

A lot of words followed while I fell from a steep inner cliff, grabbing tissues as I dove. I found myself comforting him; he was young and nervous and had clearly not much experience in the shitty news delivery department. I left, I knew I needed to check in with work, but also that I needed to talk to other people. It was cold, dark, November. I stopped in a church in midtown that was so incredibly bright. Sat a moment. Walked more. Finally called work and told my boss it was bad. We both cried but I couldn’t tell her more. I called my boyfriend at the time and a best friend, leaving messages to meet me at my house, and just kept walking the 80 blocks home.

From there, I entered a world foreign to my organic, yoga, nothing-bad-in-my-shampoo, please self. A world of bad doctors and sainted doctors. Of dosages and multiple prescriptions. Of treatments and side effects. I knew some people in my new age community would tell me I brought this on myself. Later on someone did wonder aloud to my face why I didn’t just use wheatgrass instead of chemo. I lived downtown and was at the World Trade Center site on 9/11. I worked next to the pit starting a few months after, in an office that was never properly cleaned. Two years later I worked in another office that was never properly cleaned; one day I opened a window and dust—that dust—flew up into my face. Blood cancers have been prevalent with residents and responders. Mine is a blood cancer that usually affects 65-year-old men. I don’t know what caused it. But I have some ideas, ones I can’t let go.

Since becoming cancer-free mid-treatment, I have stayed that way. I would like to stay that way forever, until I die of some sweet thought in my sleep when I’m 100. I do my best to do the things I can to stay healthy. But I also know we don’t actually know what causes cancer, and thus, what keeps it away. And once your house has been robbed, every creak is a masked guy. The PTSD has abated. But I have a cough right now. It’s been going on a while. And it’s that time of year. So I’m moving up my annual appointment. Also, pregnancy in so many ways mimicked the symptoms of being sick. And my birth experience echoed the sense of being a disempowered patient, judged by caregivers for how I (sensitive, always) responded to their treatment and treatments.

I have tried to gorge on gratitude, feast on love, call on grace. Some days, like today, when someone posts one of those stupid “Cancer Truth” bullshit posts that say “everyone who has had chemo will die in 10-15 years” I get that kind of fear that is just solid belly cold and then I want to scream, and worse. Like I want to yell at the people who say, “Well, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so why does it matter if you had cancer?” It matters. It matters a lot. I’ve been hit by a “bus” and I know there’s no cure for it, and though it might be down the road another could be coming for me, cuz they talk, the buses. See? Shitty metaphor, shitty metaphor taken too far.

And now. Now I have this incredibly beautiful person in my life who I want to tend for every day he could possibly need or want me. For every milestone and graduation and crisis and romance trouble and everything else he will and will not want to talk to me about. I want to be there. I NEED to be there. When I first told my oncologist I wanted kids, when I was just a year or two out of treatment, he didn’t think it was the best idea. He wasn’t sure if I’d be here that long, I think. Then later, with more years behind me, I asked more seriously what he thought my odds were. And he just didn’t know—this is a cancer that affects older guys. Fertility and cancer and chemo is vastly under-studied. Fertility and this particular blend of mine? Totally unknown. But he didn’t think it could hurt—no hormonal concerns. Also, I think he had more faith in me. That I would make it, as he saw other patients who didn’t. I had more faith then. And meeting someone I wanted to have babies with—well, it was done.

And now I am someone’s mother. There are people with this disease who never recur. I think. Honestly, I’m here, I’m good. I stopped Googling. I gambled on going forward. On staying healthy. On being loved and giving love. Some days this feels wise. Others, stupid. It’s all so precarious, right? I mean I hate that stupid bus metaphor, but we all live on a slender stalk and a delicate earth. I feel like all there is to do, ok, not all, but mostly—line up how we want to live and do it. Be with who gives us love and energy, do what gives us joy, and minimize the crap we need to do to be grown-ups. Make choices based on the big yes in our chest whenever possible. Be kind along the way, as best we can. Be gentle when we mess up, which we will. Afford others the same. Realize that our rage at others is pointing at something in ourselves we haven’t acknowledged or embraced. And once we do that, clarity happens.

I make gratitude lists. I talk to friends. I sleep. I eat greens. I drink water. I snuggle and kiss. I help my baby with his verbal skills and walking skills and do my best to mirror him and see him and acknowledge his essential self. I write, for a living. I walk. I breathe. Sometimes I meditate. I rest on the community I live in. I mourn for my dear friend who died of cancer well after I healed. I keep it real, but not too real. I like reality cooking shows and shopping and reading celebrity memoirs.

And now I’m realizing how this could sound like I’m signing off into the great beyond. But I think I’m actually signing on, again, to life. Chapter 2: The Next 10 Years. Life as a mother—to a person, to my body and my soul. Life as a wife and lover to my dear husband who will cry reading this, which I love (and sorry!). Life as a friend. Life as a writer who gets braver. Life as a survivor, though not just of cancer—life as a survivor of the indignities of being on earth. Of illness and trauma and grief and agitation and of course joy and love and laughter and bliss. Of pleasure. I welcome grace into this next chapter. And warmth and friendliness and love and peace and cells that are happy and balanced.

That is not the whole story, or even half of a half. But it’s what I’ve got on this blustery November day that reminds me of another one, 10 years ago, when the Grim Reaper seemed to bow his head and say “Namasté.”

Valerie Reissnamasté, grim reaper