Saturday, December 23, 2006

December 23, 2006 - Back in Control?

I read something interesting the other day – some eloquently-crafted reflections by Elissa Rubin, a television producer and friend of Leroy Sievers, the National Public Radio commentator who’s also keeping a blog about his experiences with cancer. Elissa composed this reflection after visiting a chemo-infusion facility at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, while filming a special on cancer for the Discovery Channel. Leroy posted it in the December 20th installment of his blog, My Cancer:

“What struck me almost instantly was that no one really looked sick. People were in street clothes, flannel shirts and blue jeans, carrying purses and computers. There was a woman in a purple cashmere sweater, one man in an elegant business suit. No bathrobes, no hospital gowns. Aside from looking a little tired, no one looked like he belonged in a hospital. Or that their lives now hinge upon what happens in this room, or that each one now exists in a world of prognoses and time limits. None of that was evident. I felt like I was looking around the platform of a metro station, except for the surreal fact that everyone was hooked up to a machine, with chemotherapy running through their veins, killing the cells that are trying to kill them.

Then you look around and think about what it means to come here, every week, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, and sit plugged into a machine for six hours. You see a room of horribly interrupted lives – the job promotion that just couldn't be taken, the missed soccer games, term papers that would have to be turned in next semester, maybe next year. Marriages thrown into shock, children put in the upside-down position of having to worry about their parents. If anything, this should be a place of raw emotion on display – after all, everyone is in the same position and everyone knows what the person next to him is probably thinking and feeling. It should have been a room filled with anger, yelling, objects crashing against the wall – yet no one even looked particularly sad. This was a place of remarkable calm. Maybe because it was a place – the only place right now – that offered anyone any hope. People were here to fight their cancer, to get better, to keep on living. This was the place for the people who have that option – the so-called lucky ones. At least their doctors were able to offer a plan – one that explicitly said, ‘You do have a chance to beat this, to live longer.’ This was a room of science and medicine, bright lights, protocols and doctors. Finally, there was an opportunity to do something to a disease that had stripped you of all control.”

That experience of being stripped of control goes with the territory, for those who have cancer. So many aspects of life are put on hold, when the single most important thing you can do is to sit next to an IV pole and wait for the drip, drip, drip of those toxic compounds. When it’s all over, and that blessed word “remission” resounds through the corridors of the mind, is there a corresponding return of the feeling of being “in control”?

Only some of the time – at least, that’s been my experience. I seem to alternate between taking up the tasks of life with enthusiasm and waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m living into this experience of survivorship one day at a time.

Being a survivor isn’t as easy as it may seem, to those who haven’t been through a life-threatening experience. One may imagine – from the outside, looking in – that, once the all-clear is sounded, everything simply reverts to the way it was, pre-cancer. Not so. There’s a new appreciation for what’s important in life – and a corresponding impatience with everything that isn’t. It’s hard to make long-range plans. Like nearsighted people who have lost their glasses, we cancer survivors can only see so far. We live in the present, more than we used to. In the back of our minds is a low-level, but persistent anxiety, that bobs up to the surface of our minds, unbidden: What if it comes back?

In such moments, there’s still that worrisome feeling of loss of control. We no longer see ourselves as captains of our own destiny (as though we ever were).

A ministerial colleague shared this prayer, a couple of years back. I believe she said it’s from a book called Prayers in Celebration of the Turning Year, by Edward Tyler:

Since we cannot make the journey backward into innocence,
help us to go forward into wisdom.
Since we cannot begin again from the beginning,
help us to go faithfully on from here.
Since we cannot turn ourselves by our own willing,
will you turn us, Great God, to yourself.

1 comment:

Sean Spence said...

Hey Carl,

I want to wish you a happy holiday. Your blog means a lot to folks out there, and reaches a whole new group every day through I honestly believe that the time we take to communicate our lives is having a big effect on people around the world. You are making a difference.

All the best (however we need to define that) today and every day.

- sean

Sean Spence