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Alicia Garey Headshot

At Peace With Life as I Know It

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Although I very much want to live after enduring chemotherapy, I may have started to learn how to feel more comfortable with the idea of my life not as an infinite thing, but instead as one that is temporary.

I was on a roll. I forgot. Because my two grandmothers lived well into their 90's, I always felt I would, too. I was really banking on that, assuming I'd be around as a little old lady. I've visualized what I'd look like: gray-haired, pink lipstick, unfussy but well groomed. I assumed. Hopefully, I will reach that. But I was slammed with the reality in an instant that if I did not get medical attention, I would die a fairly quick, possibly painful death. A death that my family would witness. That I would melt away. That everything I've done would be over. That there would be no more coasting along. That I would not think about walking the dog or getting my next project, or doing the dishes, or watching a movie with my kids, or going out to dinner with my husband. Instead, I would get too thin and lay in bed, withering away. That I would become delusional while on medications to help stave off discomfort. That I would be gone. That my parents would watch me die.

It is so horrible to contemplate, and writing all of this out feels like a terrible crime. I should be arrested for writing something so awful. It feels like I should not write these words because it makes them somehow true. That if I write this, it will actually become reality. That I must ignore these thoughts, these visions of what could have been. Everyone knows you must stay positive. You must lead your mind, and thus your body, where you want to go.It makes perfect sense. I do believe that we can will ourselves into and out of almost any situation we desire. And yet, I have found my thoughts wandering toward this very, very dark place.

I have finally allowed my fingers to type these words -- to get them out of my system. I don't want to imagine my imminent death. I really don't. I want to enjoy nature and my kids, and all the rest my life has to offer. One year ago I could have never, ever imagined writing such awful thoughts. I was nowhere near ready to contemplate my own death. My own end. My family's loss. But now I feel it is necessary to face these thoughts head on in order to move forward. To understand that anything is possible, despite my previous ignorance. Indeed, I was somewhat ignorant. The truth is, anything can happen. It just always seems to happen to other people. Whatever "it" is. It doesn't matter. My "it" was breast cancer. I don't want to dwell. I don't want to be stuck in fear. That is why I must face the ultimate thoughts of death. Face your fears, right? If I ignore these thoughts completely, I live in denial.

When I was a young child, I would lay in bed wondering why we had to die. I remember crying myself to sleep trying to understand. It seemed -- and still seems -- so unfair. Then again, my grandmother died peacefully at age 94. Her mother died peacefully at age 97. Peacefully, with their closest family at their side. Dying peacefully certainly does exist. I must be at peace with the very idea. If I can master the concept that I actually am just a temporary person, perhaps I'll be more fearless. The ultimate vulnerability is death, is it not? I don't want to die yet. So there it is; "yet." I understand a little better.

It helps that I escaped the worst this time. At least so far. Some people might think this way of thinking is morbid, cynical and self-destructive. I have always been a realist. Not that I don't believe in the imagination, or speculation, or the abstract. But I have been forced to take a cold, hard look at the reality of being a living human being with limitations. People face this all the time. I'm considered a bit young to have my body fail so soon. I was otherwise very healthy and active. I have spent months grappling with the concept. I have spent the past year facing the worst kind of vulnerability. As much as I'd like to keep moving forward, banishing these difficult thoughts will not necessarily help me be true to what I had to deal with. I already spent the first 46 years of my life ignoring the fact that I am temporary. I am still not comfortable with it, but I understand a little bit better. This past year, I was doing the hard work of staying alive with the help of unbelievable drugs. I am still on certain drugs (Herceptin and Tamoxifen); one of them for five years. Perfect -- I can create a five-year plan which includes that process rather than circumventing it.

The challenge has been to embrace what I have gone through rather than compartmentalizing it. Some of the treatment process is so demoralizing, it served me well to break it up into parts. It is understandable. Now I get to expand my horizons. Many people have said that this whole thing is a gift. It always sounds a bit trite, even though I've known it to be true. Oh, what a gift it is to get cancer. I could've done without it. But it is an opportunity to sculpt something new. I don't think I've had any great revelations yet, but I am beginning to see more clearly. I am beginning to accept the feeling of vulnerability that comes with a cancer diagnosis. I'll never be perfectly comfortable with it. But maybe I can work with it. Maybe I can incorporate it into my life in a non-threatening way. Maybe I can embrace change. It sounds so simplified. Rather, my life has been amplified. I continue to process the impact. I feel the push and pull of fear and exuberance.