In Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” her final two lines pose a question directly to the reader: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” (From: New and Selected Poems, 1992)
Some time ago, I read these same words to a group of cancer survivors, then members of my Stanford Cancer Center writing group. It was an interesting question to ponder. So much of their writing had been about the shock, the upheaval, and fear that accompany a diagnosis of cancer. Now I’d asked them to look ahead, after treatment and recovery, and consider what they wanted their lives to become.
The writing was powerful, and as we shared our writing aloud with one another, we stumbled on an interesting realization about the effect of cancer and our raisons d’être. Cancer, while shocking and upsetting, focuses your energy on winning the fight against it. During the process of treatment, your purpose is crystal clear. You’re intent on surviving and living.
But what about after treatment has ended? That’s new territory and surprisingly unfamiliar. The clarity of purpose you had during treatment fades. You’ve been cut loose, set adrift and left to ask yourself, “What is my life purpose now, after cancer?”
Cancer survivors often report that the time after treatment is one of the most emotional—even unusual—periods of their lives. Fears of recurrence are common as are the stresses of returning to “normal” life with others’ expectations, lists of “to dos” and unfinished projects that still wait for your attention. While so much seems the same on the surface, it can be deceptive, because so much in you has changed. Your friends might not understand what you’ve been through, and that can trigger feelings of sadness, anger or loneliness. Your body has been altered, scarred, and the side effects of treatment can manifest themselves months after treatment. Think of ABC host, Robin Roberts and her latest ordeal post cancer-treatment. You may feel self-conscious or, when a colleague or acquaintance you met in a support group dies from cancer, you may feel guilty, wondering why you were spared.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? One of the things about cancer and its treatment is, besides our clarity of purpose, that it provides us with a structure to our days, a ritual of appointments, infusions, radiation and support groups. Even though it’s a tough and harrowing ride, there’s comfort in the structure. We’re tethered to something familiar. There’s a peculiar kind of comfort in the familiar structure of cancer treatment.
In a recent article, “Losing a Comforting Ritual: Treatment,” author Dana Jennings described the letdown after his treatment regimen was finished:
As I was being treated for an aggressive prostate cancer this past year — surgery, hormone therapy, radiation — I experienced an unexpected side effect: post-treatment letdown.
It tended to arrive right as a cycle of treatment was ending. It snuggled up against its old friend uncertainty and whimpered, “So, what’s next?”
None of us want to be sick, be obliged to take our medicine. But we are also creatures who love habit and ritual, and medical treatment is a very structured exercise that plays to that craving.
When I had radiation for about two months last winter, it began to feel as familiar as a job. I knew the names of the hospital parking attendants and the receptionists. The nurses, doctors and therapists all smiled and said hello, and I did the same.
Each day I arrived at radiation oncology, checked in, got my hospital bracelet, changed into a drafty gown, then waited with my fellow patients — my colleagues in cancer— to be treated. Once a week, my weight, blood pressure and temperature were taken and I met with my radiation oncologist. I had become a regular at the radiation spa, had even learned to artfully jiggle the key in the stubborn locker doors.
Then it was over.
Which is a good thing. But even though it was a relief to be done with the radiation, it still felt like getting fired or laid off. For two months I was the subject of intense attention by the medical staff. And there was the professional yet intimate laying on of hands each day as I was positioned just so in the TomoTherapy machine… (New York Times, June 30, 2009)
How did you feel when treatment ended? Hopeful? Fearful? Untethered and cut adrift? Or did you feel relief? When our lives are consumed by any personal crisis, whether cancer, loss, or other traumatic events, we manage to get through those times, in part, because of a clear purpose, our will to make it through the worst and move on, the will to survive. But when that so-called “normal” life returns, it sometimes feels like a let-down. What then?
This week, try answering the question at the beginning of this post: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with you one wild and precious life?”