This letter was published in a book of Survivor Stories by Bernie Siegel called Faith Hope and Healing. Bernie also wrote the forward to her book, Faith, Hope, and Cancer.
It was a grocery store trip not unlike the thousands of other trips I’ve made in my adult life. I wandered up and down the aisles pushing the squeaky wire cart, pausing to consider one loaf of bread over another, trying to remember which brand of toothpaste I’d been buying lately or whether it was time to restock on Kleenex. Finally I arrived at the one section I’d been avoiding – school supplies.
School supplies, doesn’t that sound harmless? Pens, pencils, blank paper, and crayons all bought in happy anticipation by children with their lives ahead of them. Well, I wasn’t there for a box of crayons. What I needed was a notebook, a blank notebook I could fill with information. Information about lymphoma, the cancer I’d just been told I had.
I scanned the small selection of spiral bound notebooks, my eye settling on purple. My favorite color, purple. Purples and mauves and burgundies, colors I used in my house to create the mood I liked. Maybe a purple notebook could carry me through the coming ordeal, I thought, as I tossed it in to the squeaking cart and steered towards the check out counter.
I used that purple notebook everyday. Sitting down at day’s end I made careful note of doctor’s appointments, diagnoses, treatment options, prescriptions, specialists, and results. This was not a flowery account of my cancer journey, it was a plain, white bread, and generic account of what was going on. It made me feel like I had the situation under control, that it was just another work-related assignment like the many I’d completed in my decades on the job with the State of Wisconsin. And soon enough, the treatment was over, the cancer was gone, and I was headed back to my office after months of working from home. I packed everything having to do with lymphoma in a “cancer box,” tossed in that purple notebook, sealed up the box with packing tape, and put it in the back of the garage. The end, at last.
Ah, but my story doesn’t end there, does it? With me in my office and everything else back in place. For a few years after the cancer left it was like that, a tidy daily routine of dressing for work, the commute on icy Wisconsin roads, the office filled with familiar co-workers, the day filled with projects large and small, all needing completion.
No, my cancer story goes on, because six years later the lymphoma returned. Six years had passed, some 1,800 more days at the office. This time, when the doctor gave me the news, I thought Enough. I thought I’d paid my dues the first time, but no. Here it is again. I’m going to do it differently this time. Right then and there I decided to quit my job.
A job I’d loved for years, but it was time to retire and devote myself to a different kind of living. A life, a daily life, in which I’d do whatever I wanted. The time had come for me to take care of my own needs instead of routinely fulfilling others’ expectations. My co-workers were stunned by my abrupt announcement. I spread the word that I wanted no retirement party or fuss made over my leaving, but a few gifts showed up anyway. I held one small package in my hand and knew right away what it was under the wrapping. “A journal,” I thought as I felt the outlines with my fingers. “Good, I’ll be needing another one of these.”
And I did. Instead of digging out that faded purple spiral notebook filled with dry facts and information I sat down and opened up that pretty little journal and picked up my pen to let my emotions pour out on the page. Page after page – all in ink pen, mind you, there was no going back once I put my thoughts and feelings down on the blue-lined paper. Yes, once again I sat in my cozy den at night and wrote about doctor’s visits and treatments but this time I added what was really happening, that before office visits I was on my knees praying. That I was in pain. That I was angry. My emotions were suddenly close to the surface, and I decided to let them stay there.
My emotions were still close to the surface the day my doctor told me the words we all long to hear – that my lymphoma was now in remission. I left the office with tears in my eyes and walked out into the parking lot. On impulse I walked past my parked Honda, always reliable in the Wisconsin cold. I kept walking across the entire lot, and across four lanes of commuter traffic to a nature trail I could see in the distance along Lake Michigan. I needed to be surrounded by nature while I absorbed this new information. I was no longer afraid, I was no longer angry. I was relieved, I was grateful. But in many ways, I was also confused. Hunched against the cold in my thin coat and street shoes I walked along the frozen shoreline, my surging emotions keeping me warm.
I thought back to a moment early in my first struggle with cancer. I’d been reading Love, Medicine, and Miracles and came across Bernie Siegel’s question – what are the benefits to having this disease. I was angry when I read that passage. In fact, the very idea that he could ask it made me livid, I wanted to toss his book into the fireplace and just burn it up. Now, years later, I could see that maybe he was right, and my benefit had finally arrived. As I walked I looked up to the sky, suddenly it occurred to me that I had a few questions for God.
“What am I supposed to do with this time I’ve been given, god? What is the plan?” A new life was now stretching ahead of me, curving like the bends along the shore. A life without doctors, treatments, and, best of all, without a cancer journal.
I was now in the habit of writing though. My evening writing had served not only as a release for my emotions but I’d also come to take growing delight in words and communicating. I liked putting my thoughts on paper. I liked writing in ink, watching the words piling up behinds my pen. “God, could I keep on writing?” I asked again. “I don’t want to leave that part of my old life behind.”
By the time I returned to my parked car that afternoon so many years ago I did have a plan, one that god helped me see on my walk along the lake. I could take what I’d learned on my two cancer journeys and use that information to help others. I could put my pen to paper and pass the knowledge from one survivor to another in an endless chain of encouragement and understanding. I didn’t have to seal up my words in a box and put them on the garage shelf, instead I could send them out into the world as my way of helping others. Cancer gave that to me, and for that I am grateful.
Green Bay, Wisconsin