Can You Have Closure with Cancer?
“How can you have Honorable Closure with breast cancer?” asked the retired surgeon sitting next to me on a recent flight to the East Coast. “My wife was treated five years ago and we worry it will come back.”
His question took me back four years when a routine mammogram revealed I had early stage breast cancer. The test was something to check-off my to-do list before I went on vacation. I didn’t expect any bad news that morning, just a co-payment. I sat in my doctor’s cushioned tweed chair blinking, brain stalled. There must be some mistake. I feel fine.
My husband had just died three months prior from his own tangle with cancer. The last thing I needed (or so I thought) was another reminder of life’s fragility.
I didn’t share any of that with Martin, but I did tell him I could empathize, that I had been through surgery and radiation. Like me, Martin’s wife had completed her treatment and had moved forward, seemingly healthy, but then who knows what’s really going on in one’s body. No guarantees.
In the face of that how do we cope and complete?
I told Martin that one of the ways I worked with this was to practice gratitude during and after receiving treatment. Yes, that can be heavy lifting when you’re down and out. Most (not all) days during treatment I managed to notice what was working in my favor: the girlfriends that joined me on my doctor’s appointments, held my hand before surgery and were there to greet me when I awoke in recovery, only to erupt with tears of relief. I was grateful to the acupuncturist who made house calls and the insurance that helped me pay for all of this. I was grateful for the rest of my body, which was working well, and the close proximity of my two cats at the foot of my bed.
When I lay underneath a colossal sci-fi machine that poured radiation into my breast while technicians watched through a window in the next room, I often marveled at all of the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and doctors whose intellect, heart and experience had discovered how to harness this diabolical force into a healing technology. I appreciated all the patients who had gone before me and lent their experience. Toward the end of my six-week daily radiation cycle, when my breast was charred with a brown red tri-angle, I was grateful to the people who created the oily cream given to me by my doe-eyed, yet fierce oncologist. The entire experience rattled me awake to things I had taken for granted: the need for healthy habits, conscious living and a happy heart and that, not worry is what I cling to now.
Gratitude softened me so I wasn’t wasting precious life energy arguing with reality. It didn’t eliminate my sense of vulnerability or erase my fury that my husband wasn’t there. I’m not suggesting we become Gratitude Zombies and pour pink paint over our pain. The practice I’m speaking of is quite the opposite: it challenges us to look beyond the obvious, to dig deep. Really deep.
Honorable Closure is a way of staying current, living in the present moment and not losing that moment by reliving the past or catastrophizing about the future.
When Martin says he and his wife worry her cancer may return, I understand. I’ve got two more semi-annual mammograms and oncology visits before I graduate to my five- year mark, and I still get queasy and hear a drum roll inside my head as I await the results. When I hear the ‘all clear’ I exhale and smile and pull out my checkbook for the co-pay. How blessed I am to have such good care and be alive.
Martin nods. “So you’re saying I should even be grateful for this rubber chicken wrap?”
What do you think, Dear Reader? How have you, or those you love, declared closure on cancer?
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