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By Wendy A. Miller
My mom had breast cancer when she was 53. She is now 78, walks most mornings in the mall, and has never had a reoccurrence. I am a worrier, so I assumed that I, too, would get breast cancer someday. But when someday came, I was dumbfounded. I asked the doctor, “Are you sure you have the correct lab results? I then told her, "I don't feel sick." She nodded with a sympathetic gaze. "I recently climbed Mount St. Helens with girlfriends, none of whom have cancer…4,665 ft of vertical in less than 5 miles." She gave me a no-teeth grimace and replied, "There are different types of mountains to climb."
When the dust of shock and denial settled, I moved on to shame and guilt. Our neighbor, Rob, who is a professional lumberjack (true! only in Oregon), was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer the month before I got my bad news. He was as chiseled as bark on a fir tree and able to leap mountains in a single bound. If you have ever seen a lumberjack in action, you will agree, my volcanic feat pales in comparison. I was stealing his thunder by telling people I have cancer.
When I finally told neighbors about my diagnosis, it instigated a hailstorm of texts and buzz on our street. Why would two healthy, youngish people living nearby get cancer? Are there toxic fumes lurking in the air from the closed paper mill? We all like explanations and predictability. Cancer striking randomly makes us realize we are not in control, and that is scary.
It hurt to tell people because I felt like I was letting them down. I made light of the seriousness of my disease by equating it to a “boob job” and uttering reassuring words to those closest to me rather than revealing my true fears of isolation, disfigurement, and dependence on others to do my job of caring for my family.
Look what Rob is going through, you have it so much better, I told myself. I escaped chemo because a tissue sample test of the tumor did not respond to it. Rob endured months of radiation, chemo, and lost all his hair. I had an uplifting "boobie wake" at a local bar with all my friends. He planned his funeral. Feeling shame for getting the four-leaf clover kind of cancer made me angry. I avoided Rob because my stomach clenched when I saw the once virile man now resemble an Oak tree before snowfall.
Despite his illness, Rob continued to make his mark on the world like an ax felling a tree. He traveled to the Holy Land and the Redwood Forest, volunteered for Meals on Wheels and made a point to say goodbye to those he loved. He even had hip replacement surgery while being treated for cancer and competed in lumberjack competitions almost to the end. I remember him saying, “Cancer is not a battle, but a blessing.” I was mystified as to how he could be so optimistic while staring down death, especially since I was struggling to find a path forward after successful treatment.
I saw Rob at a Christmas party two months before his death, hardly recognizing him because the significant loss of weight and muscle elongated his face and mini-sized his body. Dark thick locks once covering his head had grown back as ashen moss. A few drinks in me, I approached him, confiding that I have trouble finding purpose after going through breast cancer. Yoda like, he told me "Every moment has a purpose."
I had on black leather pants that night. Rob was an active environmentalist and animal lover. To change the conversation, he inquired about my pants. I replied by telling him they were politically correct, "Vegan leather." He gave me a shoulder shrug, so I explained, "A fancy way of saying fake." He tilted his head back and howled joyfully, saying, "Knowing there is vegan leather in the world made this moment purposeful."
Reflecting on Rob’s insightful words has helped me let go of anger and comparisons. Instead, I climb my mountain and search mindfully for my purpose in the moment.
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