Learning to Live with Uncertainty

by GregP_WN

A doctor carved a messy mole off my back in 1990. For a blissful 18 years, I thought my melanoma was gone, but it returned at Stage IV in 2008. They no longer speak of "terminal" cancer, but there is no cure, and no true remission. Five surgeries, two kinds of immunotherapy, and two kinds of radiation have helped keep the beast at bay, but I think about cancer always.


Constance Crooker-Melanomamama

I can't predict when or where it will strike again. I accept that a low level dread of ambush is my new normal. I call it "learning to live with uncertainty."

In Melanoma Mama: On Life, Death, and Tent Camping, I wrote about the treatments I had in 2008 and 2009. The doctors miraculously extended my “expiration date,” so I took a glorious, solo, cross-country tent camping trip, gorging myself on the sights, sounds and smells of wilderness, wildlife, fresh air and sunny days. I saw elks lock horns and paw the earth in a primal battle for life. I later studied Italian in Italy where I pigged out on Renaissance art. For one year, I embraced the honor of caring for my graceful mother and my grumbling stepfather until their soft and gentle landings, both from lung disease. I did my most important work that year, and was grateful my life had been spared so I could be there when they needed me.

I was still grieving over their deaths when the melanoma struck again as a tumor in my brain. One day, I felt weak, wobbly, and confused. I tried to shake it off to attend a Puccini opera with my sister. She wanted to take me to the emergency room instead. I refused, and we went to Madame Butterfly. I thought I enjoyed it, but she says I slept. Then, she took me to a hospital where they kept me until brain surgery. Later, I endured targeted gamma knife radiation to the same spot. And six months later another brain surgery. I'm still a whipped pup, one year out.

Up until the brain surgeries, I lived a rich and joyous life between harrowing treatments. I am still trying, but now, I struggle to regain energy and optimism - I dance, ski, hike, play guitar and sing - but not with my usual vigor and enthusiasm. I try to meditate, and can't focus. I push myself to get moving each day. I lecture myself to no avail. I tell the doctors I'm in trouble, and they prescribe stuff for foul moods.

I live in a world with a lot of cancer patients, mainly by choice. My cancer support group, Making Today Count, is made up of women who are all metastatic. We call ourselves "the scary group" because we are all acutely aware of death. We usually share more laughter than tears, but many have suddenly gotten sicker. I visit them in the hospital, and I sing and read to them. We teach each other how to squeeze joy in the cracks of our misery. Our dear Leslie requested a hot fudge sundae just before death, and so her daughters served us all delicious sundaes at her memorial gathering.

These days I surround myself with people who accept me unconditionally. I won't tolerate petty quarrels. I seek deep, loving conversations. I sit on my couch sipping tea from Grandma's china with a friend with ovarian cancer. My friend says she's run out of options. She takes her portable oxygen to a dance, and asks her partner to sling the tank over his shoulder, so she can dance her last tango. I can't be around nervous chit chat. I draw lines in the sand. I cherish honest talk with cancer patients, but when motor-mouths fill silence with jabber about a distant acquaintance's cancer, I interrupt and say, "I hear so many cancer stories, that I cannot listen to stories about people I don't know. It's too much information. Can you please change the subject?" I risk rudeness for the sake of self-defense.

I reach out to caregivers. I always hug them. Caregivers suffer too. They strive to be cheerful and tireless, but they are worn to a frazzle changing the diapers of the one they promised to love until death do them part.

I avoid hollow platitudes and I don't lie. I listen. A dying friend says she's terrified. I echo, "Yes. Terrified. Of course you are." I say I love her. She is an artist who gave beauty to the world. I live with her art in my home. It enriches me everyday. I tell her all this before it's too late. I kiss her warm forehead and massage her feet, acutely aware that she will soon feel cold to my touch.

The Grim Reaper lives close to me always. I look him in the eye and tell him, not yet. Not yet. I've got more skiing and dancing to do. I need to taste clean wind that carries the scent of sage, of wild roses. I must let more ice cream slide down my grateful throat. And write another book or two. The drive for life trumps tragedy.

Constance Emerson Crooker is an active WhatNexter, you can visit her profile page at WhatNext Here.

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