At forty-one, I was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. In the same breath the doctor told me the cancer had spread to my spine, she told me we had options. Medical science could treat me but it would be a difficult treatment regime. I remember looking at her and saying ‘we have to burn down the village in order to save it’ and she said ‘yeah’. It was the end of everything in my world. Nothing was the same.
That was five years ago. I’ve had seven breast surgeries, one cardiac surgery, and one oral surgery. I had sixteen rounds of chemotherapy and I take an oral chemotherapy daily. I had thirty radiation treatments. I’ve been in hospital emergency rooms ten times. I’ve spent more than half of the last five years confined to my bed or my home. Depression is ever present. The list of chronic conditions I now have related to my treatment is longer than you could imagine. Yes, longer than that.
In that same time, I’ve visited San Francisco and New York City. I’ve been to the opera, seen breathtaking art, eaten the best meals of my life. I saw the hottest show on Broadway and enjoyed dance performances and opera and a burlesque show. I’ve been to a weekend music festival, small club shows and packed arena concerts. I climbed down in a cave to listen to a bluegrass band. I wrote a screenplay. I walked 4.5 miles on my 45th birthday. I made new friends. I’m planning my next trip.
I’m writing a book. I’m tinkering with a podcast. I’m starting a new career as a freelance writer. I have an idea for a business and a non-profit. My writing is read by thousands of people. I’ve been interviewed by journalists all over the world and featured in news stories and on websites.
I don’t know how it is possible for me to be experiencing all of these magnificent things at the same time cancer is trying to kill me. But it is. I am still alive. And I am enjoying my life. In the middle of the thing that is The End of My World, I am enjoying my life.
Chances are, right now, there is something going on in your life you think may be the end of you. If it isn’t so now, something will happen and probably sooner rather than later. You know why? Because it is hard to be a person. Bad things happen. They happen all the time. The End of The World comes every day for millions of people, in ways large and small. People die. Marriages fall apart. Children run away from home. Addiction happens. Alzheimer’s happens. Drunk drivers. Heart attacks. Rape. Tsunamis. Tornadoes. Pain of all kinds.
If you are looking to survive your End Of The World, do these things:
- Find the funny – if you look for it, you can see the humor in any situation; learning to laugh at yourself and at your situation can make the bleakest moments bearable
- Seek connection – all the research says the more connections we have with other humans the better off we are, physically, mentally, emotionally
- Feel your feelings – stop pretending you aren’t angry; feel it and then let it go
- Get professional help – get a therapist, really; you need an objective professional to talk to
- Move every day – if you can dance, dance; if you can’t dance, walk; if you can’t walk, practice getting out of bed; if you can’t get out of bed, move your body
- Sleep – get as much as you can, but not too much; if you aren’t sleeping, talk about it; sleeping while you are trying to get through badness is often difficult, I know; even if you can’t sleep, try laying down in a darkened room for a bit
- Eat good food – eat food that is good for your body; eat food that is good for your soul; eat the best quality food you can afford; comfort food is okay, too, but try not to eat your feelings too often
- Get a hobby – anything; take up reading or cooking; try wine from every continent; knit; collect antique beer bottles; journal; become a hockey fan; literally, anything, find something you enjoy
- Don’t beat yourself up – this is the big one; your path through your The End of The World is not going to be the same as mine which is not the same as the next person’s; tell yourself the story of how you made it through the day, it is a good story
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Laugh when you think there is nothing to laugh at. Crank up the music and dance. Talk to other people. Eat good food. Do fun things. Be gentle with yourself. If you do all of these things, you will be okay. You won’t be able to do all of them, all of the time. Some of them, like having fun and sleeping, you might not be able to do for a very long time. But you can do some of the things most of the time. And on really good days, you will do all of them.
I still have cancer. It will still kill me one day. Cancer will end my world. But it will not kill my personhood. It hasn’t killed who I am. I tell you all of these things not because I think I have all the answers or that it is easy. I tell you all of these things because I am one of the most broken, fucked up, people I know. I am a hot mess. But my some miracle, I am broken, fucked up, hot mess who has made it this far.
And your end? Whatever it is, if you are reading this, if you’ve made it this far, it hasn’t killed you either. You made it. You got through another day. You are alive. You can do this thing. I believe in you.