It took courage for Suzanne to write so openly about her experiences. It took grit to survive them and grace to arrive at being okay. It also takes some courage and grit to go on this brief journey with her. Before I went on my own cancer journey, I often turned away from reading about the experiences of others, as if just reading their words made me more vulnerable to the disease. I hope you stay with her to the end of her piece. It’s well worth it.
I am okay
by Suzanne Brita Schecker, Treehouse Community, Easthampton, MA
It’s been nearly two months since I fell in with the rest of the world and began sheltering in place due to this pandemic. I’m basically okay…what else is there to be but okay? I guess I could be not okay, but I don’t really know what that would look like.
I share in the collective angst and like many of us, I am grieving and experiencing loss on many levels. My body is tired and at 75, there seems to be an endless array of health challenges. Type 2 diabetes has been my companion for over 40 years and now there’s the tendency to get ulcers on my toes one after another after another. I have arthritis in my sciatic bone and a walking cane is my latest wardrobe accessory. Then there is asthma and seasonal allergies, all of which puts me in a super-duper high-risk category for this virus. I am careful but not beyond an occasional trip to senior hour at Trader Joe’s.
In October 2018, I was diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer and an abnormal mammogram the following spring discovered a malignant tumor in my left breast. Just before being wheeled in for the second breast surgery—the first lumpectomy didn’t produce clear margins—my oncologist received results of a PET scan that led to a diagnosis of throat cancer.
There were five surgeries and 96 radiation treatments in less than two years, all of which led to life-altering challenges, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Throat radiation is brutal. You are fitted with a plastic mask that covers your face and shoulders and is bolted to the table, so tight that every breath becomes a prayer. Your arms and legs are stretched taut at your side with plastic straps and you remain that way for half an hour as the radiation is targeted to the exact spot of the tumor on the upper epiglottis.
After 32 treatments you are done, you celebrate and are cheered by staff and friends alike. It is over and you expect the healing to begin but instead of healing, the side effects of all that radiation just begin to kick in. Soon your throat is swollen, almost closed, it becomes difficult to breathe, swallowing food and pills is near impossible, and the vocal chords are capable of not much more than an occasional squeak. For the next year or more, I coughed constantly, there was terrible pain in both ears and the inside of my throat which was described by my ENT as looking like a bombsite. The good news is that the cancer is gone. All three of them, at least for now.
One would not choose such a path for oneself, but I am still learning from this cancer journey, about myself and about this being human. I am more present, more capable of showing up real, more vulnerable and honest. I am a better therapist and much better at my practice of “centering prayer” where this process of “letting go” of my own attachment to how life should be is clearly preparation for dying…when that time comes.
I am so totally grateful for each day, so much in love with life and everything it has to offer, good and difficult. And that includes this virus…Some days this feels like a collective cancer journey, a time to be still, to go inside, surrender the little will to some greater knowing. I move between moments of beauty and awe and moments of sitting with the great suffering of humanity, of the earth, the animals, the arch of our being…I am humbled and honored just to be alive. I am okay.