Tag Archives: grieving

It’s a jungle out here

Pretend for a moment that one hundred people are standing in front of you. The only thing you know about them is that they all have lung cancer. One at a time, each person approaches you and then shares some intimate detail about their lives. Sometimes you sense that you have much in common with the speaker, sometimes little. In each case you get an overwhelming sense of their humanity.

You are thinking about how you would like to get to know some of them better when I drop a bombshell: only eighteen of these people will be alive in five years.

It shocks you but I assure you I have not told you this merely for dramatic effect; statistically speaking, this is an actual scenario. The five year overall survival statistics for all stages of lung cancer cancer are only 18%. At stage IV, that number drops to 2%, or just two individuals out of one hundred.

Statistics only tell part of the story because numbers are not nearly as compelling as living, breathing human beings.

Now imagine what it’s like to be one of those hundred; that you too have been diagnosed with lung cancer; that you too will fall somewhere along this statistical curve.

It is a terrifying feeling, and isolating as well–as many of us feel that friends and family can’t really comprehend the sometimes debilitating anxiety that is part and parcel of our diagnosis.

We often combat that feeling of isolation by connecting with others people living with lung cancer–through support groups, social media, summits, or advocacy work. However, this network can become a double edged sword, as we are now invested in each other’s outcomes. When one of us passes away, a collective shiver runs through the entire community. We grieve, we rage, but we also rightly wonder if we might be next.

Over time, it becomes a trauma–this mix of fear and sadness. And for those whose cancer is considered incurable–and in the case of lung cancer, that would be most of us–there is no post to our traumatic stress. It is ongoing, or OTSD.

We focus on staying alive even as we worry–constantly–about dying. And, because we often don’t look as if we are ill, it is very, very difficult for those around us to fathom what it’s like to live on borrowed time.

Can you plan a vacation six months from now? Is it worth spending the money to get your dental work done? Will you be there when your kids graduate from high school?

As a society there is a great deal of emphasis on planning for the future. When you are living with cancer, it often feels as if the future has nothing to do with you.

I’ve now been living with the idea of dying for over twelve years–more than 20% of my time on earth. How do I do it? One day, one moment, one person at a time.

 

xo dedicated to all we’ve loved and lost–far too young, far too many

 

 

No good way to grieve

When Sarah was turning forty, I wanted to give her something special. I found exactly what I was looking for:  seven delicate bracelets carved from bone. I sent three to Sarah, but reserved four to wear myself.

Splitting up a gift may sound odd, but it was not without reason. The white circle holds magic for me; a symbol of protection. And seven was our sum:  Sarah had been number three in the crizotinib trial, and I number four. The bracelets were meant to be souvenirs of travel to strange places; amulets of protection and a testament to our common bond.

Several days ago I received an email from Sarah’s husband. It’s been a difficult time for all of them, Michael and the children. He told me that he was wearing Sarah’s bracelet.

There is simply no way to predict the when or why or even how of grieving. Because life must go on, we do as well. Until those moments when an unbearable sadness washes over us and we find ourselves gasping for breath.

I closed my laptop, drew a hot bath, and had a good cry. And then I put on pajamas and got my copy of Sarah’s book of poetry, Tigers at Awhitu. She had written this inscription on the title page:

Tigers at Awhitu003David and Peter got home when I was half way through the book, my face blotchy and tear stained. David brought me some tea, and I read every last poem once again.

Tigers at Awhitu---Auckland University Press

Tigers at Awhitu—Auckland University Press

I know—I understand, that life is not anything close to fair—and yet Sarah’s passing is such an injustice. Nobody should die from lung cancer at the age of forty. I am grateful that we have her poems to hang on to. In July, a second volume titled Gleam will be published; something that Sarah was really looking forward to.

The particular beauty of poetry may well lie in it’s very spareness and ambiguity. The form lends itself to interpretation, and invites the reader in. We connect the dots and complete the suggested narrative, making the meaning very much our own. I am certain I know what Sarah was talking about in her poem Keep moving. For me, it is confirmation that she is still traveling.

Keep moving

I lumber over the land, knees swollen
and knotted like giant kumara roots.
Who is that child so far down below
who reaches out to me? I can barely hear
his cry, he is simply too far away. I trudge
through drying braided rivers, I step
over tussocky brown hills. What do you say,
you small people waving your hands at me
from beside the lake? You think I should stop,
you want to help, the child needs me?
Huh. No, no, the heat is its own desperate cure,
the creaking legs need to keep moving,
the dry earth knows all about me. The child?
Oh yes, I can see him still, I think he’s
getting smaller — isn’t that strange? Maybe
he’ll disappear — meanwhile, I have my eye
on that razor pass through the mountains.
I think I may have been there before.
— —-
Sarah Broom–Tigers at Awhitu