Four years ago today, my entire world collapsed around me as I sobbed and screamed from a hospital bed in the middle of an ER as a doctor with a forlorn look on his face delivered the news that I had a massive tumor that had taken over my right kidney. I didn’t understand then how dire the situation was, which was probably for the best. But just hearing the word “cancer” struck fear into the very core of my soul.
I didn’t even have the courage to call my mom. I made my husband do it. She was at my grandparents’ house, having just flown back to Louisiana after visiting us in Las Vegas. I remember when he walked back in the hospital room, I asked him if she was okay. I knew she had to have known there was terrible news on the other line when he called. It was in the middle of the night. He said she had taken it better than he had expected. The truth was, my mom knew something was wrong with me. She had not wanted to get on that plane. Mother’s intuition. I imagine she had steeled herself for bad news the entire 3.5 flight back to the motherland. When I finally mustered the courage to talk to her, she was remarkably calm, much calmer than she usually was in her day to day life. She told me that she’d told my grandmother, and that they were praying for me, and she’d be on the first flight out of New Orleans that she could get on.
I didn’t even have the courage to tell my children. I made my husband do that too. They asked him if I was going to die.
I did not die. I was supposed to die. Only 10 percent of stage four kidney cancer patients live to see their five year cancerversary.
Today marks year four for me. Year four of surviving stage four cancer.
I remember after my surgery at UCLA, I had never felt so weak in my entire life. My body was consumed with pain after having my abdomen ripped open and organs moved around, organs and tissue removed, my circulatory system rerouted like a bad game of Operation. I remember it took me until I was in a regular room to finally muster the courage to open my gown and look down at the bloodied, stitched, and stapled battlefield that had become my abdomen. “Frankenstein” was the word that came to mind, and I choked back tears as I realized I would never look the same again. It seemed so trivial, but yet it was a soul crushing, devastating realization. It took me years to look at myself in the mirror and not be instantly drawn to looking at my scar with hatred and disgust.
The next morning, one of my surgeons came to check on me, as he always did before scrubbing in for his day’s work. He told me I was one of the bravest, strongest patients he had ever had. I began to tear up and said, “I don’t have a choice.”
“You do,” he said. “You are choosing every day to keep waking up and getting out of bed. That’s a choice.”
When I was a child, I hated the number four. I didn’t know why. It was a weird superstition I had, with nothing really to back it up other than a gut feeling, an uneasiness that took over when I would see the number four. I finally confessed my odd quirk to a therapist a few months after my cancer diagnosis. I had so much time on my hands, being out on disability from work and being in such a terrible head space, that when I was no longer bedridden, I literally was seeing two different therapists for a while, twice a week.
I actually hated this particular therapist. He was incredibly, brutally honest, and I wasn’t fully prepared for it. I only saw him for a few months before I finally stopped scheduling sessions. But, he did help me uncover why I hated the number four so much. My parents divorced when I was four years old, and it wasn’t a pleasant, amicable divorce. I had memories of instances I should not have been witness to, and I apparently had a lot of deep-seated feelings around that. It finally made sense that hating the number four was not a sign that I was certifiably crazy, but a reminder of the trauma I had undergone.
The other gift this gruff therapist gave me was a book recommendation – When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. Published posthumously, Kalanithi wrote it after being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in his thirties. He was a brilliant, talented neurosurgeon who had worked fastidiously on his career when he was blindsided by the diagnosis. Being a career minded young adult also blindsided by a deadly cancer usually reserved for people in their senior years, I quickly read Kalanithi’s book cover to cover. I openly sobbed at several points, absorbing his words and feeling them with a depth many non-cancerous readers likely are not able to reach.
Every year, my birthday comes, and then five days later, I’m staring down at the Big Day – the Cancerversary. What ironic synergy between the Day of Life and the Day that reminds me of my Mortality. I don’t know what Year Four holds. I certainly didn’t anticipate being in the middle of a pandemic. I definitely didn’t anticipate being off treatment. Frankly, I didn’t really anticipate being alive, if you had asked me in the summer of 2016 after getting hit with the news in an examination room in Los Angeles that the cancer had continued growing despite the extensive surgery. My hope is that the number four can finally start to be associated with good, positive energy, unlike its reputation throughout most of my life. It does bode well for this year that I’m newly 33, which is made up of two threes, my lucky number. So perhaps, there’s some ethereal goodness to be found in this Year Four after all.
But, when I think about When Breath Becomes Air, I think about one of my favorite lines. Rather than driving me to tears now, it tickles the belly of the seed of hope that sits within me. Perhaps, it can be my Year Four mantra.
“Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words.”