It never gets easier.
“Time does not bring relief, you all have lied, who told me time would ease me of my pain!” accused 20th century poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
She was talking about grief. I am talking about scans.
Next week I will step back into the CT machine for my 12th cancer detection scan since I was diagnosed in March 2017. They are looking for lung tumors, which are an unfortunate but common progression of the disease I suffered. Every year my long-term prognosis gets better and better, but nothing is ever certain with sarcoma, and I know of patients who have discovered their cancer has spread after over a decade of clear scans. If I do discover recurrent cancer, I will be classified as Stage IV, and I will be a cancer patient for the rest of my life. More surgeries, more radiation, more chemo. The average lifespan of a Stage IV sarcoma patient is between one and three years.
I am a professional at checkups now. The rhythm of waiting room-needle stick-questionnaire-CT scan-wait again-get results never changes. I know what to expect, and so I’ve created my own rituals to help me manage the process.
But it never gets easier.
It gets farther out, longer between, safer, quicker … but never easier. It never gets fun or simple or peaceful to look over your shoulder and check if something’s running up from behind to overtake you. There is always grief, and there is always fear, and there is always anger. Even as I learn to manage those emotions in better ways, they find a way to ooze out. I clench my jaw until my teeth hurt. I can’t sleep, or I sleep too much. My shoulders tense until I get backaches. I catch myself picking at my cuticles until they bleed.
“Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide. There are a hundred places where I fear to go …” continued Millay.
And so it is. I don’t binge-watch television anymore, because it’s all I could do when I was sick. I barely ever take a hot bath, because while I had a central venous catheter, I was not allowed to shower. There are certain songs I can’t listen to, certain foods I can’t eat. I burned a blanket and a bunch of socks after treatment was over, just so I’d never have to see them again.
All this is just the dirt that’s left over when you roll in the mud with trauma. You can wash and wash again but some of it is still going to be there.
It never gets easier, but one emotion I rarely feel is bitterness. This is the cross I’ve been given to walk with. Everyone has one. Crosses are heavy, and a particularly long journey isn’t going to make them any lighter. Friends can help you lift them, and faith can help you make sense of it all, but the fact remains that most crosses end in crucifixion. It never gets easier. Not down here. Not on this timeline.
There’s another quote I’ve been pondering on lately, much much older than the plaintive poem by Edna Millay. It’s from a text called “Pirkei Avot,” which is an ancient Jewish book of ethics. It says,
“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
“It is not your duty to finish the work.”
It is not my job to be healed whole and perfect from the cancer trauma, the fear, the anger, the grief, or the disease itself. I simply don’t have that kind of power. I have to depend on family, friends, faith, and medicine to make it all work out, and even then, it’s not going to “work out” in the way that I envisioned.
“But neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
I must keep on moving. Keep on working to learn and heal. Keep on brushing off the trauma dirt and unclenching my jaw. Keep on getting checkups.
“Time does not bring relief, you all have lied, who told me time would ease me of my pain!”
It never gets easier. But it’s not my job to make it easier. It’s just my job to keep going.