This coming Sunday will be six months since I was sitting in the dermatologist's office, laughing with the nurse and my boyfriend, and was informed I have melanoma. Six months since life as I knew it completely ended. I thought this passage in Armstrong's book would help explain what it was like on that life altering day 6 months ago:
"I thought I knew what fear was, until I heard the words You have cancer. Real fear came with an unmistakable sensation: it was as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction. My previous fears, fear of not being liked, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing my money, suddenly seemed like small cowardices. Everything now stacked up differently: the anxieties of life--a flat tire, losing my career, a traffic jam--were reprioritized into need versus want, a real problem opposed to minor scare. A bumpy plane ride was just a bumpy plane ride, it wasn't cancer (70).
I remember laughing when the dermatologist told me the mole he removed was melanoma. I laughed. Who does that? I remember asking the nervous doctor if he was joking, my boyfriend getting out of his chair, placing his hand on my lower back, and the doctor repeating the information again. I remember the numbness that overtook my body. I didn't cry...no tears...until the head doctor came in and asked me if I had children. Then, I cried. That is fear.
When trying to find out how advanced my cancer is, I kept demanding to know "What does stage 3 mean? Am I going to die? Will this kill me in a year, 2 years, never?" Armstrong talks about how he handled that situation. He writes, "Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances? I wanted to know the numbers." That is how I was. I asked every single doctor my chances of survival. I needed to see the numbers. Before I was diagnosed, I used to joke, "If I have to get cancer, let it be of the skin." That thought makes me sick to my stomach now. I thought skin cancer was easily curable. Suddenly I am being told stage III melanoma is something I'll battle for the rest of my life and in its advanced stages, deadly. All of my doctors were hesitant to share statistics because, honestly, they are depressing. My wonderful surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering summed it up best for me. Statistics are not important in the grand scheme of things because those numbers are not of 100 Chelsea's. They are of many different people with many different factors. There is no study to show how I am going to respond. Armstrong describes this in his book, too.
"What are my chances? It was a question I would repeat over and over. But it was irrelevant, wasn't it? It didn't matter, because the medical odds don't take into account the unfathomable. There is no proper way to estimate somebody's chances, and we shouldn't try, because we can never be entirely right, and it deprives people of hope. Hope that is the only antidote to fear" (95).
Then Lance asks an important question. A question that has made me think since I first read it. He asks, "What is stronger, fear or hope"(95)?
I have no problem remembering the amount of fear I felt the first two months after I was diagnosed. It seemed like I was being beaten on the head each and every time I went to the doctor. First, I had melanoma. Then I was being told to spend time thinking about my desire for a family, possible radiation and chemo. Then I had surgery on 5 locations in one day. Then I had positive lymph nodes in 3 out of 4 lymph basins. Then I am being told I am not sick 'enough' for the best treatment available, time for another surgery, and now after all that, I am able to enter a clinical trial. I did not have time to have hope because the information I was receiving caused me to become even more fearful. I was too consumed with fear to even think about having hope.
But, you know what? I don't think fear is such a bad thing sometimes. Fear opened my eyes. I used my fear to educate myself on my options. I used my fear to reach out to other people experiencing the same situations. And once I stopped fearing every single doctors appointment, fear actually made me stronger. Fear allowed me to gain hope that maybe, just maybe, I could tackle this head on. Fear allowed me to realize just how badly I want to live.
As I sum up this post tonight, I want to share one last quote from Lance Armstrong. He writes, "I wanted to live, but whether I would or not was a mystery, and in the midst of confronting that fact, even at that moment, I was beginning to sense that to stare into the heart of such a fearful mystery wasn't a bad thing. To be afraid is a priceless education. Once you have been that scared, you know more about your frailty than most people, and I think that changes a man. I was brought low, and there was nothing to take refuge in but the philosophical: this disease would force me to ask more of myself as a person than I ever had before, and to seek out a different ethic (96)."
Cancer may have taken away the innocence of my twenties, but it has given me the opportunity to learn more about myself than I could have ever imagined. Despite all the negatives, melanoma has opened my eyes and is forcing me to not waste any more of my precious time. Like Armstrong, cancer is challenging me to be the best I can possibly be.
And maybe that is a blessing in itself.