WHEN THE BODY SAYS NO

A few minutes from home, on a gorgeous June day

This blog is one of my favourite places to come to, but you wouldn’t know it in recent months, would you? I’m sorry about that.

I find myself in a corner—not of my making and certainly not of yours. Your presence out there creates a vast space. It’s a place where so many things seem possible.

But I’m so blocked, it’s awful. In BREAKING OPEN THE SKY, I told you parts of the story, but I know now that I have to tell some of the rest of it, or forsake coming to REEF, because I find myself unable to write anything else to you until I do. Because I’m all of a piece.

There’s an elephant in this room I share with you that sits alongside everything you know about me so far and about how I see the world. Elephant really is the right metaphor, because once in your life, it overwhelms everything else—at least at first.

What you need to know—in as few details as possible—which is coincident with my moving away to a new place and separating from my husband, is the fact that I have cancer, officially diagnosed only a few weeks ago, though of course, I’ve felt that something was wrong with my body far longer than that. Two weeks isn’t much time, and yet still, I feel that I’ve travelled a great distance since then.

Today. A perfect day (taken June 21st, on my doorstep)

The diagnosis is very serious. There can be no pretence that my very life isn’t at stake. And at the same time, there’s an abundance of hope. The nuts and bolts of my situation are that in a few days, I’ll be scanned and MRI’d and checked out in every way possible; that once my cancer has been “staged” (once we know how advanced it is), I’ll start weeks of radiation treatment; then I’ll be operated on and then, perhaps, receive chemo, although that’s still only a possibility (one that I won’t even think about until I have to).

Written out on paper, this looks bleak as hell. But it isn’t. Know this, because it matters. Know that I’m being treated in one of the best medical centres in the world for my illness. Know that the surgeon (a brilliant woman and extraordinary human being) I met just 10 days ago looked at me with the truest, most direct gaze and said that we would be heading toward curing my cancer. Know that she said this with genuine confidence and optimism. Know that the blood work that came back two days ago was very encouraging. Know that aside from the symptoms of my illness, I show no other signs of ill health, and look pretty great.

There. That’s the surface of this experience. It’s the generic.  But beneath it is the very personal narrative of living with illness—with this particular illness. I don’t propose to turn REEF into a cancer diary, but I can’t ignore it either as it has, in important ways, hijacked my life.

Version 2

During the first moments and days after the diagnosis was delivered by the gastroenterologist, each hour was about bouncing along waves: some of emotion, some of shock. Her face (yes, I’ve been treated by two female doctors so far) was so serious—deadly serious, really. I was with my son Simon and with my husband in her office, and she frightened us with her intensity—with the urgency of her directives.

My thoughts and feelings that overrode everything else at that time were of tremendous regret—at having neglected myself, foolishly, stupidly, for so long—and painful guilt, of the kind that comes from the implacable truth that what is hurting me is also already leaching into the lives of the people who love me most, and causing them suffering. These combined to create a deep sadness that threatened to erase every other consideration…for a while.

What was absent, what IS absent, is shame and embarrassment. Though I now carry the awareness of my cancer with me every second, I don’t feel tainted by it. This comes as a great surprise to me. I wrote to a dear friend earlier this week that it seems that whatever self-pity or squeamishness or revulsion I might have felt about being sick with cancer when I was a young woman, is gone. I don’t even think of the tumour, the illness, as something alien. These cells were produced by my body, and they are part of me for now. Just as my gall-bladder malfunctioned for years, so are these cells malfunctioning and wounding me now.

I’ve often seen people respond to their diagnosis of cancer with an immediate, overwhelming desire to get it out of their body as soon as possible, as though the very thought of it makes their skin crawl. But I’m surprised to realize that I don’t feel quite this way. I will be happy when the mechanics of my digestion are able to resume more normal functioning, but I don’t feel that I’m living with an invader (though I fully understand the meaning of metastasis). I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I feel less anxious, which helps.

The diagnosis of this cancer swept all of the scribbles off my agenda. I will not be able to work for a year. This is a certainty. Having to cancel classes, knowing that I will not have the richness of adult education and the joy of daily contact with my students in my life for at least a year, is a loss that I will feel deeply. I do already. There will only be targeted, fixed dates in my agenda during the next few months: the dates of treatments and tests, and of course the date of our move, July 5th. After that, all of the radiation treatment dates will be blocked. And then the date of surgery. These are the new signposts of my life. These are the brass tacks.

But already, so much has filled these agenda hours, each symbolic rectangle of time has been coloured in hues of green, blue, red, white and everything in between. These are the shades of love that have illuminated the past weeks. I have been at the receiving end of an outpouring of love and support—from my sons, husband, family, friends, students and neighbours— such as I never thought possible. Understand that, as always, this is everything. Know that love and support provide the alchemy that changes pain and fear and pessimism into acceptance and hope. Know that it matters. And know that right here, right now, it’s why I feel happy. Apprehensive, concerned, shaken, fragile, but genuinely happy to be alive, and fortunate, despite recent events.

 

 

 

About this video: Shot this morning, such a singularly gorgeous morning: even the sun feels upstaged.
The leaves speak and the birds answer.
(yes, that’s the sun pushing up off the horizon, flickering)

*********

I’ve reminded myself and others that the “diagnosed” me is the same person who packed 250 boxes (with help!) and got this house ready for sale at super-speed just a few months ago while teaching full-time, and did all of those other things that have made up my life for years…while sick with cancer. As my surgeon said to me: cancer and I have likely been roommates for 5-10 years. It’s good to remember this. We walk with shadow every day: we’re simply made to look towards the light.

My cancer has reminded me of a book I read a few years ago, written by Gabor Maté, a palliative care specialist, psychotherapist, and caregiver for people who are living on the street, titled When the Body Says No. It came to mind almost the second I heard that I was seriously sick. It explores “the intimate connection between mind, body, and spirit through life stories and intimate interviews with dozens of people who have lived, died, and sometimes overcome chronic illnesses”. It speaks of “the cancer personality”.

There’s a deep lesson for me hinted at in the pages of Maté’s book. It’s a lesson I had already begun learning these last few years (a bit late) about self-love; about boundaries; about accepting one’s value as a human being; about the limits of what can be absorbed into a body; and finally, about the fact that receiving is the crucial concomitant of giving.

On June 6th, when we got home from the gastroenterologist’s, my son Christian sat with me right here at the dining room table, and, with the loveliest smile on his face, and looking right into my eyes said:

“Well, Mum, this is the moment.”

And when I said: “What moment?”

He replied: “The moment when every bit of love you’ve ever given; every kindness; every soothing kiss or hug; every act of patience and presence…this is when it all comes back to you tenfold.”

What a beautiful thing to say.

Simon, Christian, Jeremy, Sylvain, Anne, Mum,  Loulou, Lise, Cindy, Gail, Vickie, Marie, Danielle, Ann, Patricia F, Sari, Rana, Patty B, Karen, Madeleine, Céline A., Marie-Claude, Mario, Michel, Leslie, Cate, Mira, Mark, Armina, Ben, Fanny, Catherine, Louis-Marie, Luc, Denyse, Marie-Hélène, Sophie, Anne-Marie, Charles, Mary, Charlotte, Debbie, Judy, Michelle K, Julie, Donna…

THANK YOU.

MERCI.

Nothing but blue skies… June 21st, near my house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “WHEN THE BODY SAYS NO

  1. Deeply moved by what you wrote! You are strong! You will walk out from this difficult period quickly! I will remember you in my pray.

    Ben, your French student

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  2. Oh Michelle, I am so sorry to hear this news. I am just on the way home from visiting my brother out West who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Funnily you mentioned how some just want the cancer gone, ripped out as soon as possible – my brother feels that way, while he waits anxiously for a set date for the surgery.

    I do know that you are a very strong woman. Someone very special, who has lots more to do in her life, so I know that however hard this coming year will be for you, you will see it through with the help of family, friends, and all the many people you have touched in your work and through your words.

    If you need anything, I am here for you.

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    1. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Charlotte.
      While shopping at Fairview today with Simon, I bumped into a former student, Ruby. I taught at the company where she works 2 years ago. It was a fantastic experience, but the contract was short, and I think we all felt that.
      When she saw me, she asked how I was–and of course I just smiled– and then she mentioned that her employer was talking about starting up French lessons again, and that it would be so good to have me back…
      It was one of those moments when it’s so much better, and wiser, to smile and move the conversation along…
      Once Simon and I continued on, I turned to him and said that this was why I was so glad that I had been able to post this piece on the blog, because otherwise, my whole life would be little more than a series of such encounters.
      It’s so important for the people you care about to KNOW. Thus, it’s integrated into daily life, and I don’t have to pour any energy into dissembling. Instead, I can love, and accept love and kindness. Like yours. xo

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      1. Just thinking about you and hoping you are ok. It’s rough what you are going through. Very rough. Lean on family and friends to get you through this. If I can help in any way, let me know.

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  3. I did not only read your words, I LIVED them!! A lot to share and comment on but I will wait until we meet, face-to-face, when we can talk heart-to-heart. All what I can say now is that I share and live the same hope and optimism you feel! Love you Michelle!

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  4. Michelle ma chère,
    Nous allons prier pour ton rétablissement. Bon courage, laissez-nous savoir s’il y a quelque chose qu’on peut faire pour te soutenir durant cette épreuve.
    Beaucoup d’amour,
    Antoine

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