I sat across from Barbara (yes the names have been changed) and asked her to draw a boat, a lighthouse and a storm. She protested that she can't draw a straight line. I insisted this really isn't about the drawing and if she humors me she will see I am being honest with her. I explain that she is free to tear up her artwork at the end of our session if she wishes. It made her feel better to know she could destroy the potentially embarrassing evidence of her childlike expression. She trusted me, sorted through my art materials and gave this a shot.
It took months for me to be in this seat, the one across from Barbara as she sat in her recliner in the bay where she gets infused twice per month for hours. She has colon cancer that spread to her liver. She has been getting treated at the Cancer Center from before I started last March. Since then, I often walked past her bay, occasionally asking her to give art therapy a try. She would wave me off, politely, say no thank you and tuck her wig-covered head down into her word search. She would busy herself with puzzles while the pump whirred in the background for hours.
Something about her changed a month ago. I could feel it. She made longer eye contact with me as I walked past. I could tell she wanted to share her thoughts with someone and she was sizing me up. I offered my services again.
Despite feigning resistance for consistency's sake, I knew she would create something. I gave the directive to draw a Boat, a Lighthouse and the Storm and she got to work. I picked this topic after reading about it in compilation about Favorite Therapeutic Techniques. I have been experimenting with this one in a variety of settings and learning how it reveals a person's attitude towards adversity.
I could have asked Barbara to stand on her head and we would have likely gotten to her story anyway. It didn't matter what I asked of her, she was clearly ready to open up. After some time working with all the materials (magazine photos, water color paint, markers, colored pencils, etc) I had to offer, she presented me with her image of a boat collaged over a picture of a lighthouse, with watercolor painted rain falling over half the scene. A bright sun shined on the right half. The boat was far to the left headed though tumultuous waves as it neared the shore.
I asked her what was going to happen. She shared that boat wants to get to the shore. I asked what it needed to make sure it made it. She immediately shifted to first person (I love when this happens), explaining "I need to navigate carefully through those rough waters near the coast since I don't know what is under there and it looks dangerous. Also, I need to pray." I asked if she thought she would make it. She beamed that she believes she is almost there.
I asked how her treatment was going. Here was her moment. This is why I was here. She shared that she had a scan recently and that all those stubborn lesions that had threatened to take her life had shrunk! In fact, only one small one remained. This meant the the treatment was working.
We talked about the relationship between her picture of the storm and her treatment. She recognized the powerful parallels. She appreciated being able to see that she was still concerned about booby-trapped coast lines that are tricky to navigate. She fears getting to close to success and then crashing because she wasn't careful. She can see the sunshine and knows where to go. She is so close that she finally feels safe talking about feeling better. About feeling lucky. About feeling stronger. She dated the picture and packed it away to keep.
Barbara was just one patient I saw today, prior to preparing for my run home at the end of my shift. I love running home from the Cancer Center. It makes me feel like I have come a long way. When I see my patients in the waiting room and they observe me on my way to run, I see them smile because I know they know I had cancer too. I don't even mind that my run is through some urban areas that are quite the opposite of running through the natural beauty of woodsy trails.
Today was special, not only because I got to be a witness to Barbara's joy, but because just before my shift ended I was gifted by our dietitian a package of wool hats donated to her by a charity. She gave away the hats to everyone who would take them, but about 20 remained.
As I shared my plans to run/walk all night at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life to celebrate my 7 years of being cancer free this weekend, the dietitian insisted I take the hats to the relay and pass them on. Hats really are a big deal. I still have all my hats, especially the rainbow striped one my brother gave me to keep my head warm and brighten my day. It was a hat, glove, scarf set. I wear the gloves at ultras now.
Twenty handmade knitted wool hats are a little bulky and we scrambled to figure out a way for me to get them home. She found a small apple store bag in her desk that held them perfectly. This, of course, made me think of Steve Job's recent passing from Pancreatic Cancer. He was able to buy the best care and it gave him about 8 years. Cancer does not discriminate.
I changed from my work clothes to my running clothes, which today consisted a neon yellow shirt given to me by the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults at the Half-Full Tri Relay last October. The back of the shirt says Wanna Fight. I didn't know this for the longest time. I often wondered people behind me in races would comment that they really didn't want to fight me. I often wonder what I was I doing that made so many people say this to me. The front of the shirt says boldly 'Team Fight!" I feel strong when I wear this shirt.
I secured the apple store bag of hats to the back of my running pack and took off through the urban jungle, getting the raised eye-brows I have become used to. Clearly running down the streets of Elizabeth is not usual.
I am not sure if it was my outfit of the bright yellow Team Fight shirt with loud navy blue shorts and red shoes, or if it was the apple store packaged wool hats for cancer patients, or if it was the fact that I was running home, relatively fast, from the cancer center that made me feel like a cancer fighting superhero. I felt like I had a purpose. Like I was on a mission that was meaningful.
What I do know is that this feeling changed as I passed the mile long stretch along the cemetery.
It was there that I wondered just how many people were in that cemetery that were not as lucky as me. Cancer sucks. It is brutal. It is unpredictable. Some of us recover. Some of us beat it because we catch it early and/or treatment works. Some of us beat the crap out of bodies in the process. Cancer somehow has a way of even making those who manage to escape it's clutches feel badly. Survivors Guilt.
I am grateful that I did survive but I honestly don't feel that I had to fight hard for it. I feel more that I was lucky and for that reason I try to give back. In addition to possibly helping others, I also want to be sure I am ready to fight again if my own cancer returns.
This is how I ended up running through a tough neighborhood, carrying hats and dressed like superhero in a hydration pack. But as I pass the cemetery, I am overwhelmed by the sense that a few hats or some art therapy or a little fundraising may not do as much as I would like to believe. Sometimes things feel futile. However, I am very much aware that doing nothing is certain to help no one.
As I turned onto my street, I was a little surprised by my run. It took me just over 1 hour and 2 minutes to get the 7.5 miles home. That is about an 8:16 pace while lugging a few pounds of gear. This was my fastest commute yet. I was inspired. Usually, I feel like the wind is in my face whole way. Today I felt like I was running downhill. It felt incredibly easy, as it should.
I am lucky. I know this. I am grateful. Seven years out and I am able to run strong. Seven years ago I wasn't sure what would happen next. I wish there was more that could be done to help others hurry up and feel the way I do today. My success lies in early detection and a personal ability to decide on the most aggressive treatment I could tolerate. Even as a lucky survivor, remnants of trauma remain as I often wonder how long it will take for me feel like I don't have to worry about feeling like I did seven years ago again.
So for now, I run and hopefully I will figure out what I am doing one step at a time.