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  • lmcintirecpa

Today was D-Day—diagnosis day. My kind but matter-of-fact doctor called with the biopsy results I was dreading. I have breast cancer – “invasive ductile carcinoma”, whatever that means. I haven’t had the energy or the inclination to Google it.

He patiently and compassionately explained the next steps. But—my cold fingers clutching the phone and my brain swimming in cortisol—I only heard three words: “CANCER”, “ONCOLOGIST”, “SURGEON”.

So, I wait... for the phone to start ringing; for appointments to be scheduled; for information gaps to be filled; for my loved one’s reactions.

I’ve decided it doesn’t matter how much you try to prep yourself for that news, how desperately you want to trust God or how strong you thought your faith was.

Our human bodies and minds are hard-coded to respond to trauma – real or perceived – in certain predictable ways.

I’m numb. Then the fear, icy and insidious, seeps into my soul. Crying seems out of reach. Guttural screaming seems more appropriate, but that takes too much effort.

So, I hang up the phone and stare searchingly into my husband’s clear blue eyes, those eyes that for 28 years have exuded love and assurance, that gaze that has always made me feel like it’s all going to be ok – no matter what.

But this time is different. His clear blue eyes are clouded with tears, and he grabs me and pulls me so tight against his chest that it scares me and jars me back into reality.

In sickness and in health, indeed. Breast cancer journey: Day 1.

The flood of phone calls has started. First the surgeon’s office, then the “nurse navigator”, who apparently helps all the breast cancer newbies, then the oncologist’s office, then the newbie nurse again. I’m a robot, and my brain doesn’t even know what my mouth is saying.

But like a good cancer patient, I dutifully open my calendar and type in the dates, times and locations to the best of my shock-state ability, trying to absorb the instructions and saying “uh-huh” at what I hope are all the appropriate times.

I’m quickly realizing that cancer has its own jargon, terms I have never heard nor have ever wanted to hear: “sentinel node”, “oncotype”, “tamoxifen”, and the list goes on. I don’t speak this language. But they do, and I feel like they expect me to. It’s every bit as bewildering as wandering the streets of a foreign country looking for a bathroom.

Do I have any questions, they want to know? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.

  • Since catching it “early” seems to be the big key to not dying… Did we catch it early, or at least early enough?

  • Can my liver, which is already damaged from years of abuse thanks to my errant immune system, even handle chemo?

  • How do I tell my family and friends?·

  • Will cancer ruin my family financially too?

  • Why do I feel ashamed for having cancer?

It turns out these aren’t the questions they can answer—the ones I’m desperately wanting answers to – at least not yet. I guess they mean, Do I have any other questions that don’t relate to cancer or my future or my family.

So, I hang up the phone all four times—flooded with frustration and fear and the unshakable feeling that this is going to be a long, brutal trek in an alien land, groping my way through dark, dense jungles and trying my best just to keep up with my guide.

  • lmcintirecpa

It happens to all of us in this life, and our time was last week. Tragedy strikes and time stands still. A mind in shock responds the only way it knows how – by steeling itself against the blunt force of the psychological trauma.

We go numb. We stay busy. We stop eating and sleeping. We take care of the details of death.

Then as the shock wall slowly starts to crumble, we find ourselves trapped in a web of sticky emotions: anger, sadness, fear. All the usual suspects, each taking their turn pummeling the punching bag that is our soul.

When you’ve lived long and grieved often, you learn the ebbs and flows of loss, the patterns of pain – never comfortable but decidedly familiar.

Your stomach ties itself in knots; your brain buzzes with nothingness and breathing in and out feels like yeoman’s work. The minutes bleed into hours, then days, in one big blur. Your mind begs for answers, yearns for meaning that goes deeper than the anguish. Like a drowning man gasping for air in the middle of the ocean, we grasp for God when the grief is smothering.

But the only answer is deafening silence. It feels like nothing and no one could possibly pierce through the fog. But then they come. Not God, but his assistants.

They march up the driveway, laden with pans of lasagna and brownies, bent on being there.

They text encouragement, complete with copious amounts of prayer, heart, and kissy face emojis.

They send overpriced flowers they would never buy for themselves.

They hug you tight while you cry.

They pray through their own tears.

They pretend it’s normal to answer the door in your nightgown at 3pm.

These gestures alone – even all of them together – are wholly inadequate to change the circumstances or solve the problems of pain, and we all know it. Soup doesn’t dry tears. Flowers can’t unknot a stomach. Even heartfelt prayers feel like tumbleweeds blowing across a barren desert when we have suffered much.

But in ways I will never be able to explain, these little kindnesses slowly but surely morph into a healing salve. One by one, day by day, they provide the strength and sustenance a grieving soul needs.

So, bake the brownies. Send the emoji-ful texts. Hug and cry and listen and pray.

I know…you’re busy. It’s awkward. The situation is so complicated, so painful, that dropping off dinner might feel more like a slap in the face than a labor of love. Besides, it doesn’t fix anything, you’ll tell yourself.

You might be right.

I don’t know how the scent of fresh flowers heals a hurting heart, or how the taste of homemade brownies calms a muddled mind. I’ll never understand how arms wrapped tight around us evoke courage, or how simple prayers offered on our behalf when we are weak bring strength.

But as inadequate as they seem, and as inadequate as we feel to act as God’s assistants, these are the signs of life, the anchors for the soul, He has given us to console our fellow humans during the darkest days.

And then, when we are strong again, it will be our turn to pretend it’s normal to answer the door in one’s nightgown at 3pm.

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