The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
This journey begins with a single “Ouch!”, the one that I yelped on Dr. Rawlings’ table during a routine pelvic exam. She poked again. I yelped again.
“There’s definitely something going on,” she said. I didn’t like what was going on, for sure, and things didn’t go much better for about a year after that.
This was the beginning of my journey into the world of cancer, treatment and, finally, healing.
Some people dread and fear cancer all of their lives, but I never imagined that I would get cancer – many other things, perhaps, and I had already overcome addiction to alcohol and other drugs, but a diagnosis of cancer had never entered my mind.
After all, I was healthy. Seriously. I ate right, mostly. I exercised. In fact, I loved to exercise. Dancing. Biking. In my new home in North Carolina, I was hiking nearly every weekend. I hadn’t drunk alcohol or smoked anything for years.
The irony – and also the blessing – that would follow me every step of the way on this new journey was that I was perfectly healthy, strong and fit, except, oh, by the way, I had cancer. I was in my late 40s, at the peak of my career as a journalist. I had just bought my first house. I was surrounded by beloved friends and family. Sort of.
And I had cancer. Only I didn’t know it yet.
After more poking at her end and more yelping at mine, Dr. Rawlings said I could get up and get dressed. I haven’t seen her for 10 years, but I’ll never forget her. She was petite, blonde and impossibly young, dealing with a slightly manic 48-year-old woman who she thought might have cancer.
She recommended a sonogram and sent me home. I was thinking I had fibroid tumors. I’m glad I didn’t know what she was thinking.
At the time, I was preoccupied with work, running a 13-person features department at a good, mid-size newspaper. I love journalists. We are nutty, neurotic and egotistical but each in our own unique way, so going to work was always diverting. I had recently returned from a national features-editor conference in Kansas City feeling inspired and second-rate by turns as I always did after those meetings.
I was also participating in the slam-poetry scene that was sweeping the nation and had been to Austin in August with the local team. More of the same personality types only more-so. Since poets are full-blown artists their neuroses are even more fully evolved than those of journalists.
I had broken up with a pretty serious boyfriend the previous July after an 18-month relationship. I wasn’t exactly at loose ends, because I had plenty of things happening in my life: all of the above, and I’d been to a Yoga ashram in Virginia Labor Day weekend; I was getting ready to go to a 12-step conference in Cherokee sponsored by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, taking contemporary dance lessons, and going to contra- and swing dances.
But something was not right with me, and on some level I knew it. Despite my high level of activity, I felt bone-tired when I stopped to rest. I was sleeping 12 hours on weekend nights. My belly seemed big and kind of hard, despite maintaining my normal weight. My low back hurt. I was having abdominal discomfort that made me hold my breath, not only against the pain but also in fear. My period had stopped, and I felt sad.
I would feel a lot more sadness, pain and fear before it was all over.