My personal relationship with cancer began in 1991, when my sister Kristin had a reoccurrence of malignant melanoma that metastasized on her lungs and brain. She died before her 36th birthday, leaving behind her husband and 2 small boys; not to mention me and all the other people who loved her. I thought of cancer as evil. As I grieved her loss, integrating reality into who I was and how I understood life. Slowly but surely, over time, my opinion changed. Since 2003, I have developed a dramatically different perspective.
I now think of cancer as a very powerful and proficient teacher with the potential for profound transformation. I am a right-handed woman, wife, mother, grandmother; and a cancer free, left trans-radial amputee. In February of 2003, I was a left-handed woman, wife and mother, in apparent good health. I ate reasonably well, was physically active, had annual checkups, practiced yoga and meditation, attended church regularly, volunteered in the community and even read to four year olds weekly!
There was a soft, non-painful lump on the inside of my left wrist that I tried to ignore it for about 7 weeks, hoping that it would go away. An MRI revealed a six-inch mass, beginning in my hand, filling my wrist and extending into my forearm. A biopsy gave me a diagnosis of very high grade malignant fibrous histiocytoma, the most common form of soft-tissue sarcoma, a very uncommon form of cancer.
My doctor informed me that my prognosis was good (40 – 65% survival rate) with a treatment package that included 3 rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and possible chemo post-surgery. I asked him several questions, including: “What is the acceptable margin for resection?” With a look of gentle surprise, he answered, “2.5 cm -1 inch all around.” I knew that the cancer already filled my wrist, and so did he. I asked, “What will happen if I do not accept amputation?” He answered, “You will die.”
He urged me to accept the unimaginable, to choose life without my dominant, left hand. Making that choice would mean that I would accept something life altering, disfiguring, potentially life-saving, but with no lifetime guarantee. The goal of my treatment was to be cancer free. I made my choice and became very proactive in pursuit of that goal. I thought I had four months to become right handed and one handed, but that is another story.
My surgery was performed on Friday the 13th of June, 2003, one month earlier than planned, because the chemo had no effect on the tumor. It was growing, not shrinking. The good news/bad news in that is that I didn’t have to have chemo following my surgery, but if any cancer cells decided to move elsewhere in my body, they were also unaffected. Cancer dwells as an ever-present shadow on my life. It reminds me to live everyday. I am grateful for that awareness.
I describe cancer as the narrow spot in an hourglass, and I am the sand. I have traveled from the top through that tight spot to the bottom, the same sand, but with a different arrangement.
Life After Cancer
I have learned to be right handed and one handed – not an easy task, but one that has brought me continuous lessons. I have learned that there are very few things I am not be able to accomplish with the right amount of patience, persistence and grace. I have learned to accept, adapt and accommodate to my new normal. I am amazed at how often I am still confronted with something that is two-handed. I am given the opportunity to learn to do that thing a new way, to ask for help or, sometimes, to just decide, gracefully, not to do that thing!
Someone once told me that I make it look easy. I can assure you that it is not and has never been easy. I have experienced numerous narrow spots. I have made a list which I will not be sharing with you here. My narrow spots have been positive and negative, large and small, have included crisis and disaster and have occurred by accident and design. And in my response to them, I have stumbled as often as I have succeeded. And I am not ashamed to say so. I am one of the imperfect members of humankind. I do not have the answers for myself or for anyone else.
There is a sign on a stairway at the gym where i do strength training with a prosthetic device and a trainer twice a week. The sign says, “There is no stairway to performance.” The not so subtle message? You need to take the steps! Life is challenging – even downright messy sometimes! The challenge is to find within yourself the resources to faced lifeʼs narrow spots with patience, persistence and grace.
I now have 3 wonderful grandchildren. My first grandchild was due 10 months after my surgery. I was more than a little apprehensive about becoming a grandmother, borrowing more than a bit of trouble worrying about diaper changing, playing patty cake and making French braids in a little girls hair – focusing too much on what I would have been able to do before losing my hand. However, I have been surprised and blessed by the discoveries that my granddaughter has brought to me. Now 8 years old, Amy was born on Easter Sunday, 2004 after having a thalamic brain hemorrhage and has compromised use of her right side. Together, we make a perfect pair of hands.
We must have the courage to choose to accept whatever narrow spots come our way; to embrace the passage and navigate with intention on the ever-changing journey of life.