"Did you know Tom's going to Italy for a month?" my husband told me over the spray of the shower. "Lucky guy!"
Italy, I'd rather be there than here, I thought, as I continued brushing my teeth. Instead of cruising through the Tuscan countryside, walking through an olive grove, eating in a family-run trattoria, I'd be driving the ten miles to the University of North Carolina Breast Cancer Center.
Just two weeks earlier, sitting in front of the light board, the radiologist pointed to my film and said, "I think it's cancer. You need to see a surgeon right away." I looked at her, shocked, speechless and then mumbled a response that didn't sound like it was coming from my mouth. How can this be happening to me, I wondered. I had no family history, no forewarning, and now, at forty-five years old, I had two teenage sons to raise.
I thought about Tom as I dressed for my appointment with the oncologist, bracing to hear the plans for chemotherapy once I'd healed from my lumpectomy. I felt a growing bitterness that some people could be so lucky, to not be dealing with cancer and to have a carefree vacation in such a wonderful place.
Why God, I thought, why is this happening to me? I don't want it to happen to anyone, but I don't see why this has to happen to me. I felt picked on by God, by the universe, by fate, by whomever or whatever determines who gets cancer. Why couldn't I be the one going to Italy?
Sitting on our bed, I put on my sandals as I felt the now familiar tears coursing down my face. A sinking sadness enveloped me and caused a feeling of emptiness in my stomach. And then it was as if a small voice said, I can't teach you the same things in Italy.
What are you saying? I responded, to what I understood as God in the gently instructive voice that guided me.
I waited. Staring down at the floor and feeling confused. Eventually the response came.
Just trust me.
My oncologist mapped out a rigorous schedule for chemotherapy followed by radiation. I had no idea that treatment would be so involved, the whole process taking almost eight months.
Exhausted when I got home from the appointment, I broke down in tears, overwhelmed with thoughts of how to handle treatment, work and family responsibilities. I'd always been independent, managing more than most, priding myself on being a strong woman. Now I felt helpless, cornered by cancer with no way out.
I stood at the living room window, watching our Golden Retriever sleeping on the porch. Just a typical day for her, I thought. It was calming to observe my 'brown-eyed girl' who was the only other female in our house, my ally when the boys were rowdy. I felt myself relax a bit and then I heard the still small voice with the answer, Accept whatever people offer you.
Over the weeks that followed, I understood the wisdom in that message. As family and friends heard about my treatment, they volunteered their help to drive me to appointments, bring dinners, take my boys to their activities. My usual response would have been to graciously decline their offer, insisting that we'd be able to take care of things. But this time, I remembered that instructive voice and said, "Thanks. That would really help." I never realized how my insistence on being the strong one had denied others the joy of helping, and me the humility of depending on someone else.
As I progressed through treatment, the cumulative impact of my chemotherapy made it harder to keep up with my responsibilities as a research nurse. It had been challenging enough before cancer, but working with nausea and tiredness made it much harder. I'd heard of cancer patients losing their jobs when they struggled to work during chemo and wondered if this would happen to me.
Usually I managed work depending on the auto pilot of my education and experience. But in this situation that didn't seem to be enough. I called out to God to help with what seemed insurmountable. Eventually the answer came; I'll navigate you. I found that as I prayed moment-by-moment for help with my tasks--which job to do first, which steps to take that day--I became more efficient as an easier way opened up.
By the time I finished the chemotherapy, I felt worn down as I looked ahead to the thirty-two radiation treatments. Unlike the chemo appointments once every three weeks, pulling into the radiation oncology parking space each day constantly reminded me I had cancer. Besides the dried-out-by-the-sun feeling and the flu-like tiredness, I was growing weary from the long course of treatment. Now I had to deal with the gray days of winter and the windowless gray radiation rooms.
How can I do this, I wondered, once again invoking the still small voice to give me direction. Do something you love, I heard. Pair the bitter with the sweet.
I found my energy grow as I thought of ways to make the radiation visits more pleasant. Instead of dreading every morning, I arrived early for my appointment and enjoyed coffee while writing in my journal. After my doctor's appointments, I went shopping and forgot about cancer. When my day was especially tiring, I went home and put on my pajamas and ate ice cream and cookies in bed while watching a soap opera. Now I realized that I'd deprived myself of life's little joys by staying so focused on responsibilities that I hadn't allowed myself these necessary treats.
When I finished the eight months of treatment, I thought back to Tom's trip to Italy. I wondered what he'd learned there. Had he been taught to accept the grace people offered? Had he realized God could navigate him through the obstacles of the day? Did he receive lessons on pairing the bitter with the sweet?
I didn't know.
But what I did know was that my life was better from listening to a kind teacher and eating ice cream and cookies in bed.
Connie Rosser Riddle is a fourteen-year cancer survivor from Apex, North Carolina. She recently completed a memoir about her journey through cancer and being fired from her job that led to a new life of bold solo pilgrimages. See her blog at ConnieRosserRiddle.blogspot.com. Contact her at ConnieRosserRiddle@gmail.com.