I cracked my fortune cookie and pulled the thin slip of paper from inside. I smoothed it open and read: Do not search for happiness. Create it! ………Bingo!
I smiled, thinking, “how amazingly appropriate” while marveling at the fact that every reader of that fortune would find a way to associate their own life challenges with those words. My husband Jim’s fortune said something about becoming an executive. He is retired and 85 years old, but about to start his own online business. ………Another Bingo!
We were at a Vietnamese restaurant, celebrating the first anniversary since I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Why celebrate? Because I am still alive in spite of a prognosis last February of 3-12 months. I had responded with, “What? Oh! Okay.” Jim had said, “I have a five-year plan, and you’re in it—for the duration.”
From childhood, I had always walked with one foot in Heaven and one on Earth—talking to God as if we were best friends. I had no fear because I didn’t really care which direction my feet might lead. As an adult, I had made so many poor choices, my comfort with God and Heaven had diminished. We spoke less. With the prognosis, it returned. Every time I closed my eyes at night, I thanked Him for the many blessings I had received in my life. All the unhappiness had dropped from memory, simply been erased. I embraced the inevitable.
Now, at our anniversary dinner, Jim said, “Let’s come here every February first,” restating his determination that I would be with him for many more years. I used to think he was sweet but hiding from reality. I had accepted the prognosis and had put my affairs in order, beginning with getting the Washington house ready to sell, giving away everything I owned that wasn’t needed to show the house, and starting the process of saying good-bye.
To that end, I threw a Celebration of Life party, telling Jim and my daughters that it was in lieu of a funeral or memorial service, not wishing them to have to organize, pay for, and endure something sad when we could have fun instead. A friend suggested (because I would be bald by then) that we make it a hat party, and everyone responded to the idea and wore big and floppy or funny hats.
I had scheduled the party in May, at the earliest date available for the venue because I was feeling horrible and weak either from the disease or the chemo or a combination of both. I assumed everything would be downhill until the end. We were moving to our cabin in the mountains at the end of May to simplify our lives and my remaining time. We also decided to have a second party there for Jim’s family who were expecting two babies in the early summer and wouldn’t be likely to travel before August, hoping I would not be in hospice or gone by then.
Much to my surprise, a month after the party my PET scan showed vast improvement. The prognosis changed from a maximum of 12 months to possibly years of survival. We decided to postpone the second party until fall and make it a celebration of Jim’s 85th birthday instead of another good-bye event for me.
I was changed to a new chemo which I might tolerate better as it had different side-effects. My oncologist chose it for improved quality of life. That sounded ominous, but my hair began to grow back, and a rash on my arms and lower legs were the worst of the new side-effects. I spent much time resting because I still felt weak and in spite of the improved prognosis, still anticipated each day that I would begin another downhill swing.
November and Jim’s birthday came and, with the help of Sharon, my daughter-in-law, it was a wonderful warm family time. For a change, the focus was on him, and that was remarkably refreshing.
By Christmas the rash was gone, my hair looked pretty good, and I felt good. I had another PET scan, which I assumed would show the inevitable progress of the disease. Much to my surprise, it showed slight improvement and no new tumors. I will remain on this chemo until it is no longer effective. There is persistence of the disease in my lung and bones, but the growth seems to be very slow, and new life-prolonging treatments are being developed every day.
For the first time, I actually believe there might be years left. I had already said good-bye to family, friends, possessions, and life. So, the arrival of hope was difficult to accept. Remarkably, I now have a blank slate called the future. I joined a LIVESTRONG group at our local YMCA and stopped keeping the recliner warm and the calendar empty.
I work-out twice a week and am feeling stronger by the day. My big question is, “What to do with the rest of my life?” In order to “create happiness”, I have to determine purpose. In the past, purpose has always found me through the process of raising children and maintaining home, relationships and career. What a wonderful opportunity—to choose purpose and to create happiness.
Last year, I felt blessed to know that I had limited time but enough to prepare for the end; now I feel blessed to know that I have more time—time with the same limits anyone has. Most people don’t live their lives as if death were around the corner, even though intellectually we know it could be. Now that the shroud has been lifted from my mind, I can join the crowd and live with new anticipation. I can plan beyond next month or even the next season. I am no longer “at peace” with what life remains; I am engaged and moving forward.
I know that I am fortunate to have this time—that not all patients diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer are as lucky. I also know that many have prayed for me, and I do believe in the power of prayer.
Instead of “Good-bye”, I can say, “Thank you.”