The Dichotomy of Cancer
I am tired today. Like, really tired. The kind of tired that you can feel in your bones, the kind that feels like all the fight has been siphoned out of your body. The kind of tired that feels like six months straight of fighting for every moment finally catching up with you.
I don’t really have time for it to catch up with me right now. If it could come back in June when my school year is over and I can sleep, that would be great. But now? Nope. Too busy. Please leave a message after the beep and I’ll get back with you just as soon as I am able.
You know, like June first.
This morning, a colleague asked me how I am, and I answered by saying, “I’m really tired.” Another teacher was standing with us, and she chimed in quickly to answer: “Why?”
It was everything I had not to laugh out loud.
Why? Why? WHY AM I TIRED? Gee, let me think about that for a second…
I am not just “I need a nap” tired. I am “My soul is weary” tired. It’s the kind of tired that is really hard to explain—so I didn’t. I wanted to say something sarcastic. I wanted to be like are you serious? I love this fellow teacher of mine, but her question made me gawk in disbelief—and it also almost made me laugh. I wanted to laugh.
But, I didn’t.
The Lindsey that existed last August might have. August Lindsey was a LITTLE too sure of herself. She was a little too complacent, too comfortable, too cocky, too lots of things. April Lindsey? She’s soft. She’s resilient in a way that she’s never had to be before. She’s stronger and her resolve is firmer than it’s ever been. She’s been toughened in ways that she didn’t know were possible.
But her heart? It’s soft. The edges are smoother, the gray areas are grayer, and no April battle is as important as an August battle. If April Lindsey is fighting, it must really be worth it.
You know why?
Because, cancer. That’s why.
Cancer is so weird. It’s scary and it’s terrible. It’s the literal worst. But cancer and God have done some pretty amazing work in my life and on my heart, and the dichotomy of feeling hatred and gratitude simultaneously is something I don’t know if I will ever fully reconcile in my mind. But, I am trying.
Watching my husband willfully poison himself fourteen days out of every 21 for the last four months has been a special type of mental torture that I hope you never have to experience. It’s nothing compared to his physical suffering. But, in some way, every member of our family is in pain right now. Chemotherapy, in all its forms, is a wicked, nasty drug that wreaks havoc on a person’s entire body, not just the cancer cells. It doesn’t discriminate—it just destroys everything, sort of like a scorched earth approach. Destruction is everywhere. It’s delightful.
The drugs he takes produce some terrible side effects. He isn’t really sick, but he’s in pain. He’s exhausted. He has wicked insomnia. It’s all kinds of fun. One of the odd side-effects that I didn’t know about is that the particular chemotherapy drug my husband takes causes the patients who take it to lose their fingerprints.
Yes, you read that right.
The patients who take this drug LOSE their FINGERPRINTS. As an added bonus, his hands dry up and peel and crack. His fingertips feel like blisters that haven’t popped, and he has cuts all over from cracked skin. At times, his hands have looked like he stuck them in the blender. But if he steals something, no one will know unless he bleeds at the scene of the crime.
This would be a really great time to rob a bank, right?
It’s OK to laugh. We still do. If we don’t, we will lose our minds. I need him to wait, though—I don’t have bail money until next Friday. It’s OK to laugh here, too.
One of the ways that we have combatted this cracking, bleeding skin is by slathering his hands in a cream made by Aveeno and either covering the bleeding parts with band-aids, or sliding gloves onto his hands that he wears overnight, in hopes that his skin softens enough to stop cracking. Most of the time, this works fairly well.
One night, not long ago, as I held my husband’s cracked, bleeding hands in mine and worked the cream into his moisture-starved skin, I thought a lot about the cream and its function. Our ultimate goal with the cream is to stop the cracking, the hardening of his skin. We are seeking to soften his skin, to heal the cracks and to make it resilient enough to endure six rounds of intensive chemotherapy. We have one round to go—eighteen more days from this time this was written. In eighteen days, we will have persevered through and learned to combat this cracking, this bleeding, six times. That feels like a win.
Something about massaging that lotion into Jon’s hands gets me thinking every time. I’ve always been pretty reflective, but this journey is one that has really exacerbated that trait in my personality and caused me to look even further inward. I guess when your whole life implodes on one day, the Lord is really working to send a message. In case you’re listening, God, message received. No further life-altering events necessary. Please and thank you.
Is this not what cancer has done to our hearts? Is this not why we are so tired, and yet so much stronger than we were last summer? Has cancer not taught us to persevere through our own cracking hearts, our own spirits breaking? The last six months of our lives has been punctuated by so much tragedy, trauma and grief, that it’s hard to imagine that there is a gift in there somewhere. It’s hard to imagine gain from such tremendous loss.
But, it’s right there. Just under the surface of those gloves.
In so many ways, I am stronger and more resilient than I ever realized. My entire life had to implode for me to understand my place in the universe, but here I am. Six months ago, I thought I would stop breathing. And so many times since then, the breathing has been questionable at best. Our hearts have been literally shattered. Our breath has been stolen. Our resolve has been tested in ways that we never knew were possible. And we have persevered.
You see, some things just don’t matter. Some battles just aren’t worth fighting. Some people will never hear you, no matter how you speak to them—it’s totally unnecessary to keep yelling in those circumstances. It’s totally unnecessary to find other creative ways for them to hear you. At that point, it’s time to move on. And you know what? That is OK. Because if they can’t hear you, they were never meant to in the first place, and the acceptance of that is the beginning of peace.
As I massage cream into Jon’s hands a few times a week and help him put on gloves or bandages to assist in the softening of his skin, I can see in his eyes, and I can feel in my soul, the softening of our hearts and our spirits. No longer do we conduct our lives the way we used to. No longer do we pick the fights that we used to pick. Because so few fights in this life really matter.
Instead, we have leaned in to the resiliency that has been revealed in us as we have won battle after battle in this seemingly unending war. We have called upon a strength as a couple and as individuals that we never before realized that we had, much less that we would ever need.
Cancer has been unrelenting. Once it starts, it just does not stop. It has stolen from us; it has cheated friends out of years of their lives; it has scared us, and it has saved us. In so many ways, like the Aveeno, it has been a balm. It has soothed wounds we didn’t know we had. It has healed hurts we previously didn’t understand how to fix. It has sealed cracks and crevices that before cancer, might have destroyed us. The healing and the sealing and the softening have, in so many ways made us stronger. Cancer is a disease of dichotomy: heartache and happiness; faith and fear; love and hate; hardening and softening. How these complicated emotions and experiences can exist together is mind-boggling, and yet, this has been the truth of our journey every moment since we learned of Jon’s diagnosis. It’s counterintuitive and it doesn’t make sense. And yet, it is the only thing that makes sense.