Beyond Cancer

On certain days, particularly when it’s overcast, rainy, cold, I find myself feeling vulnerable and in fragments. Like a shattered clay pot. For a long time I felt broken. I felt betrayed by my body and incapable of performing any mundane daily tasks, let alone creating life. My first cancer diagnosis arrived years ago, while I was busy dreaming of becoming a mother. A healthy, active, permanently sun-kissed mother. We were living in California then, where we hoped to create a different kind of life. One abundant in health, wellness and the outdoors. I imagined a work-life balance that would enable us to become the perfect parents; frequent trips to Lake Tahoe, where I would learn to expertly ski backcountry slopes; and weekend family hikes in Mount Tamalpais and Marin Headlands. That was a different time, a different me. How ironic is it that my body decided to reveal how unwell it was when I was striving for wellness?


I was consumed by fear for many months. The cancer diagnosis was just one of several confrontations with my mortality I experienced that year. These events left me paralyzed with anxiety and depression. Waking each morning was painful. Walking felt arduous and working was impossible. Anything outside of my home was frightening and posed numerous threats on my life. A voice in my head chided me whenever I did manage to go outside: “What’s the point of doing anything anyway? We’re all going to die.”


Our time in California feels like a dream now, and we persevered through that nightmare one breath at a time. In retrospect, I perceive those hardships as an education. It took a long time and a lot of work to gain that perspective. With help from bi-weekly talk therapy sessions, art therapy, daily meditation and prayers, and visits to a California ashram I stopped identifying with the trauma, attaching it to who I was as a person, and projecting it into my future. In time I learned to view the events as a scary and dramatic lesson on what to value in life: family, friends, health, time spent together. As a shadow encased our daily experience, we were surprised to find joy in simple things: Sunday morning bagels, walks on the beach, wildflowers, sunsets. All those cliche things that every human enjoys slowly pulled me back into the light.


Fast forward a couple of years, my husband and I left California and returned to New York to be closer to our family. We pivoted careers, we set our roots, we created a new life. Elated to be expecting a baby and thrilled to have my difficult first trimester behind me, I readied myself to become the ideal mom I had waited so long to become. “I got this!” I confidently thought as I studied baby books, and enrolled in hypnobirthing and breastfeeding courses. At four months pregnant, the hospital visit was in my mind just another routine brain scan. I would tolerate the awful sounds and frigid temperatures of the MRI for 45 minutes, then “thank you, goodbye, and see you in another six months!” The discomfort of these required scans hardly phased me in my gestational bliss. But we’d soon discover a crack in my perfect sacred vessel of a body.

The oncologist looked dismayed as he pointed to a shady spot in the MRI images. Naturally, my immediate reaction was fear; and then an ugly cry that I tried to contain in front of the good doctor but couldn’t so I hid in the bathroom. I was afraid of not living long enough to see our baby grow up. I thought of ways that I could have avoided this. I blamed myself and felt remorseful that I was, yet again, imposing this suffering on my husband, and now our baby. That night, my husband and I held each other extra long and extra tight as we readied for bed, my little baby bump between us as a reminder of what dreams we had.


For a while, I felt attached to the unfairness of the situation and seriously considered that I might be cursed. I surveyed the past, analyzing my mistakes and misgivings to somehow make sense of what was happening. And I pitied our baby who, it turns out, had such an incapable mother. I feared my treatment options, the toll it would take on my body, my marriage, my family. But no intervention would commence until after the baby was born, so in order to enjoy what was left of my pregnancy as much as possible, I pretended I didn’t have cancer.

That was easy to do as we decided to keep the news a secret in an attempt to contain our enjoyment as expectant parents. Whenever I was reminded of my medical reality, I vented my anxieties into a cell phone camera to an invisible audience that didn’t yet exist. Video journaling became a place where I could store my fears and feel less alone. Through this act of sharing, I slowly found myself making a choice that engendered a strength in me I didn’t know existed. I made a choice that I was the storyteller in this drama; I am shaping this sacred vessel and determining its future; I get to decide what I do with my body; and my baby has faith in me because he chose me to be his mother.


My baby chose me. I know that and it baffles me to think that he would choose to go through all of this with me. When I came to that realization I no longer felt alone, instead I carried a sense of responsibility mixed with gratitude and humility to do right by him by healing, and not just repairing, my body. This is a feeling that I don’t think many people will understand, or will perhaps even judge me for. But I have this profound faith that I will survive – not only that, I will thrive, so that he can too.


I am not dying. My body just has cancer in it. I am not dying, but I do think of Death on occasion. I try not to fear it and instead accept it as an eventual inevitability. Eventual. My son is a daily reminder that we are just here temporarily for a wild ride, so we might as well enjoy it.


My brain feels comfortable making metaphors using the language of ceramics these days, as I’ve recently taken up pottery as a therapeutic medium. It’s been helpful in granting me a sense of agency to shape my worldview; and also surprisingly useful in enforcing stillness in the chaos of my mind. There’s a tradition in Japan when a ceramic pot breaks, silver and gold is used to reassemble the fragments. It’s a practice of embracing imperfection: wabi-sabi. Shattered bits made beautiful again. I think of this often whenever I feel like a shattered something; whenever I feel broken and in fragments. It gives me inspiration for how I want to live the rest of my life.

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