Every day is a good day. But today, I have a special reason to celebrate. Five years ago, April 28 2009, was my last day of chemo for breast cancer. And I’ve been told, one’s official survivorship birthday is marked by the last day of chemo. So woooohooooo!! I am now officially a 5-year survivor! (insert embarrassing white girl with overbite doing the running man dance)
This survivor birthday is interesting timing, because next week I am honored to speak at Genetech’s REV Forum 2014 Conference in Washington, D.C. about Empowered Patients. I firmly believe the source of my own empowerment was the people who showed up for me. While the medicine was all critical to kill the cancer, it was kindness and community that kept me alive and gave me the courage to rally through that journey.
I wanted to share a journal entry from 5 years ago, in celebration of the people who were there for me in big and small ways, and in celebration of all anyone who has ever reached out to support their own survivor. Your role is bigger than you think. We don’t do anything alone, and we definitely can’t do cancer alone.
Do Good Today!
The Bell Lap
It was my last round of chemo. Growing up a long-distance swimmer, they would have called it the bell lap—the last two lengths of a mile, marked by some official in white. This clanging commotion was to alert the swimmers that it was time to turn on the heat and finish strong. But I always felt that perhaps the bell was even more for the spectators who might have fallen asleep somewhere during this race, which is a ridiculously long 66 laps and requires a lap counter—a very low-tech, plastic flip chart that is stuck in the water to help swimmers keep track of where they are in the race. The numbers turn orange on the bell lap, and any well-chosen counter zealously swings the plastic sign, like pendulum, to try to ignite a final rally.
The night before my last treatment, I was trying to keep up with my mom duties the best I could. I was squeezing in the post office and a run to the pharmacy for my precious anti-nausea meds ($1000 a pop, mind you, thank goodness for good health insurance) before zipping back to pick up Ethan from his summer-league swim practice.
My cell-phone rang and I was delighted to hear my friend and old swim coach, Kris Kubik on the line. “Where are you?” he asked. I explained my task list and my estimated time of arrival to Westwood Country Club. He said, in an overly excited Kris voice, “Great! I’ll meet you there.” He hung up with no explanation, as if this would be a normal meeting, when it was actually quite unusual. But then again, Kris has never fit the mold, and certainly nothing about this cancer ride has either.
As I pulled into Westwood, I literally did a double take at the sight of Kris standing out of context in the middle of the parking lot, somehow avoiding the country club traffic of dark SUVs, waves of little people in blue and gold lycra swim suits, and at least a dozen old men in displeasingly high-cut, white tennis shorts. It would have been heart-warming enough to see him standing there with a smile, as Kris lives on my list of five people who have most influenced my life. But instead, in an over-the-top Kris kind of way, he was comfortably out of place—dramatically ringing a sizeable gold bell over his head, and swinging a lap counter, marked with orange, with his other hand. All of this spelling out the significance of my chemo bell lap and reminding me it was time to rally.
I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. So I did both.
I found my way to a parking place and Kris handed me the bell, “It’s the one your Dad used to ring.” My dad had selflessly volunteered as an official at several hundred swim meets, literally all over the world. He had indeed rung the bell for many swimmers crazy enough to enter the long-distance events. He had even rung it for me. The tears flowed.
As I took hold of the bell, my heart stuck in my throat. I was flooded with the knowing that it was not just Kris and my dad who were cheering for me to finish strong. In my heart and mind I could see all of the people who had shown up for me in ways I could have never predicted. I could see my family and all the people who prayed for me and cared for me and fed me during these last few months. I could see myself as the swimmer of my youth, working hard to finish the race, delighted by the many who had lined up poolside, to wave me on. I smiled, as I could see each of them with their own cheering style. Some very serious as they pointed to the wall, some of them jumping and clapping their hands above their head, some of them breaking out into a notable if not embarrassing dance, some cupping their mouth to maximize a “wooohooo,” some throwing one arm in a repetitive windmill motion that accompanies a gritty, “oh yeahhhhhhhh,” others mumbling a slow prayer “please, please, please.” With all of these loving people at my side, I knew I could not fail.
As I sat down in the fat, vinyl recliner on the last day, I prayed for strength and guidance.
I knew I was not alone and I knew I could win.
And I did. I made it through the final day of needles and IVs that I tried to simultaneously ignore and forget. I focused instead on the ever presence of my loving and heroic husband, my mother, and the constant stream of sisters and friends who came to shower me with love. I knew the days ahead would be filled with exhaustion and other unglamorous side-affects, but still, I felt so lucky. When the nurse pulled out the last IV, the confetti flew and the champagne flowed. I walked out of that room, eager to ring the victory bell reserved for patients leaving chemo behind. I rang it hard and loud.
That night, we gathered on my mom’s westward facing deck to ring a third and final bell as the sun set on this chapter of our lives. I held my husband and my kids close as the bell sung out, “I AM WELL!!” The victory was more than a sense of completion or freedom from all the physical misery. It was a triumph for my soul. What could have destroyed my family, soured my faith, sabotaged my smile, or hijacked my sense of humor—did not. I am well!
A week later, I stood in my friends front yard in central Austin, the Mary Tyler Moore theme song was ringing through my head, “You’re gonna make it after all…. ba da da dahhh.” Re-enacting the intro sequence of the 1970s sitcom, I took off my wig and threw it straight up in the air, watching it twist and turn against the blue-blue sky.
Cancer did not bury me, it planted me.
From here I will grow.