I walk into my second radiation treatment behind a woman in a fun skirt made of vintage tablecloths, her round head sporting the new growth that looks like peach fuzz. An attendant in an orange shirt helps a blanket-wrapped man from the wheelchair into a waiting car. I see two other patients, both with walkers. The youth of my radiation techs looks good to me now, and the way Amanda’s face lights up when I finally notice she is pregnant and ask about the baby makes my morning. Outside of Amanda and maybe the cute young tech, I look to be the healthiest one here. I feel the need to help carry those who are dealing with so much more than I am, but it isn’t time — I don’t want to infringe.
They say radiation is a breeze, and so far it is, as long as you don’t stop to consider the deadly rays funneled into your body daily — those very rays we’re taught to fear and work to avoid. And as long as you don’t look around too much at the others sharing your journey.
Over the past few weeks, waiting for this day, I’ve dreaded the start of radiation because to me it meant this: thinking about cancer for an hour out of every 24 for seven weeks. Now, I know that it will mean this: hurting for every person I see here daily, and understanding that pretty much every one of them is facing a mountain far higher than mine. I am so lucky. Why?
I hope this is the only time in my life that I’m given free and preferred parking. The woman who chose the space next to me sat in a battered once-red car with her hand to her head and the windows down. She didn’t look up when I eased into my car. It was 10:13. Of course it was — it’s my lucky number.
Cancer is not the hardest time I’ve faced. Watching my mother die and trying to steady my father each day as his mind fades top the list. Dealing with pain I’ve caused others is a close second. These passages are agonies. Cancer is a wrench in your life-clock, a rewriting of plans, an upending and introspective re-centering. In a way, it is death and rebirth without the dying.
I don’t know why I have cancer, and I don’t know what cancer wants from me. I know we don’t need more suffering; we are overrun with suffering. Maybe we simply need another voice. Do we? With cancer claiming an ever-increasing percentage of the population, surely the numbers begin to blur. But I can be a voice. I can see beauty and celebrate with awe and I can create, after a fashion. This daily dose of hard-awareness will fuel me, once I release my grip on the melancholia of it all.
We are born into this life fairly fearless, but our willingness to grasp the new is fleeting. More and more I realize that fearlessness only returns to us after we open our eyes and drink in the realities, both good and bad, that surround us. Awareness and action: my two new friends.