When faced with a diagnosis like mine, you find coping mechanisms where you can. In the first few weeks, I kept trying to stay busy by cleaning and organizing our house, but often would get overwhelmed with all of the little things that needed to be done. The house repairs. The dust in the bathroom corners. The floors needing to be mopped. The laundry needing to be put away. I spun my wheels, accomplishing nothing, because every task seemed both overwhelming and insignificant. Most of the early days ended with me crawling back into bed at some point, defeated and sad.
My husband is an avid fantasy reader, and, as luck would have it, received the latest book release from one of his favorite authors a few days after we became a cancer family. He threw himself into this book, escaping into its world to cope with the increasingly frightening news we were receiving in ours. Every evening, he came home and regaled me with stories from his book, the struggles and triumphs of the characters, unexpected plot twists, and lessons learned in the pages.
One evening, as he neared the end of the book, he came home and told me a lesson from the plot of his book. Throughout the story, the protagonist fixated what he perceived as the most important step of his journey – the first step. It was only at the conclusion of the book that he recognized that the first step was not the most important one. The most important step was the next step.
The most important step is not the first step – it’s the next step.
This pearl of wisdom became a mantra for me throughout those first few harrowing weeks. In the midst of diagnostic testing, I would lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, fearful and awake. I would repeat those words to myself, over and over, until tears streamed down my face. Those words afforded me solace and surrender through many, many dark days and nights.
When you’re living with an incurable disease, you only have the next step. We don’t know what the future holds. Our life right now seems to be settling quietly into our new routine, our new normal. My phone alarm sounds every day at 8:00, reminding me to take my medications. I am more acutely aware of my limitations, both physically and mentally. I have found more space for self-care, including some regular swimming, which has done wonders for both my pain levels and my mental health. We seem to be coming down the giant mountain of uncertainty and fear that defined the diagnostic process. I know that this is only the first of many mountains that I will summit, but each mountain, each challenge gives me the strength, the tools, and the abilities to climb higher, to be stronger, and to face the unknown with less fear and trepidation.
In a few hours’ time, we will close the door on 2017. This year has pushed me past limits I previously did not know existed. It has tested me, weathered me, and also shown me incredible beauty and strength through the lens of my disease. I have seen the magic of cancer come through in the love and support of family, friends, colleagues, and strangers, who have reached out to us to lift us up. I have had the opportunity to zero in on the most important things in my life, and I have found new opportunities to learn and grow as I take each step forward in my new life. I have affirmed to myself that I am -unyieldingly – still here. I have the gift of taking each next step, whatever those steps might be.
We all take a lot of first steps in life. But this humble piece of advice rings true to me now more than ever. It is the next step that is most important, and it is what we do with those steps that matters.