Growing up, I was a competitive swimmer. I always found a lot of joy in the act of swimming and the training process. Working hard, pushing myself, and facing new challenges at practices felt comfortable and natural to me. However, I almost always struggled in competition, often getting into my own head and crowding out all of the confidence I had built up through my training with doubt and negative self-talk. I frequently choked in high-stakes events, and many times ended my seasons in disappointment, failing to live up to my expectations and abilities. Only in the times that I was able to separate myself from those negative thoughts was I able to really make significant accomplishments in the sport I loved so much. I would find a space where the outcome didn’t matter, only the process. I could stand, ready for my race, with full confidence in my training and abilities, and know that the outcome was the culmination of whatever work I had put forth for the previous weeks, months, and years. When I shed off those layers of expectation and unburdened myself from the illusion of control, I always surprised myself with what I was able to do. I surrendered to the unknown.
There is a lot of surrender involved in this diagnosis.
Surrender, particularly for women, particularly for mothers, is an incredibly difficult concept to fully embrace. Surrender as a young women with a breast cancer diagnosis is almost impossible. When I think about what surrender means for me now, I often think that it means to accept that my eventual passing, and acknowledge the more temporal aspects of the human condition. There is a loss of control in a situation in which I regularly mourn the loss of control already bestowed on me.
We often navigate life with the understanding of the vague possibility of immense tragedy falling on us, but with the distinct belief that we are likely to live into our 80s or even 90s with reasonable health. My diagnosis, in many ways, has robbed me of that future, if only because it has robbed me of that belief that my life will carry on with the likelihood that I have many decades of good health owed to me. In a tremendously visceral way, my future is being rewritten – the slate in which the outlines I had drawn for my life have been wiped clean and I am forced to acknowledge this emptiness.
Now, this is not new or revolutionary information. Everyone thinks “live in the present!” and are particularly fond of instructing those with cancer to follow that adage to the letter. But what does that really mean? Living in the present means accepting the fact that everything in which we believe ourselves to be entitled is actually just being loaned to us for an unspecified length of time. Surrendering to the present is a distinctly lonely path, and a tremendously uncomfortable one, and loneliness is a tremendously uncomfortable emotion. One does not particularly like to sit and be lonely – I, for one, don’t. But the lonely space, the empty space can be filled with oneself. When one surrenders to the emptiness, to the “it doesn’t matter” one finally takes steps to allow oneself to fill it with the present, in ways that we more readily can dictate. Surrender can allow us to engage in life in ways that are bigger, deeper, and wider than we know.
I have been on the cancer road of life for a few days shy of a month. I am currently in a place where all that is available to me is to sit and wait for my next test, a test that will hopefully fit the final pieces into the picture my diagnosis and allow me to move forward with treatment. I am tremendously anxious to have these answers, but also terrified at the possibility of continued bad news. I am sleepless in my fear and anxiety, trying to wrest control out of a situation in which control is not mine to take. I am a take charge type of person. Surrendering control is not something I do well, and I have realized that this diagnosis is quickly testing me in the ways I struggle most: testing my patience and living alongside my deepest fears.
But what if that sense of waiting can be turned into the gift of time? I am still here, and more time than the now is not a given. There are infinite moments between my point A and my point B, and if those moments are filled with fear, I am losing sight of the possibilities available within that space. I am waiting for others to give me answers I do not need to live my life. I want some test results, some treatment plan, some consultation, to allow me to move forward, when the only person that can allow me to move forward is me myself. Sitting with fear, uncertainty, and surrender is so intensely uncomfortable. But those emotions walk with us all each day of our lives. And naming them, taking them by the hand and leading them along with me allows me to remember that those feelings are not separate from my joys and passions and successes, but buoying them. These emotions help widen my path, not narrow it.
Since Dr. G first uttered the words “stage 4” to me, sleep has been tremendously elusive. I have spent each night tossing and turning, a rotisserie of fear, anxiety, discomfort, and sadness. Over and over, I mourned all of the future losses I had yet to experience, and mourned the future I felt had been taken from me. I agonized over the empty slate in front of me, and cried in anguish over the loneliness of this road. Last night, however, I went to bed with a new measure of peace tucking me in. I felt myself surrender, not to mortality, but to life: two sides of the same coin. Instead of perseverating on what is going to happen to me, I breathed deeply and smiled, held tight to my husband’s hand, and felt deliciously, triumphantly alive. I am still here.