I learned a lot from my time with leukemia. I got the kind that kids get, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). Think of it like your inner-child getting cancer.
Diagnosed with ALL at 30 meant I had to climb Cancer Mountain. Then sit up there and think. For three years. Three years of chemo, with radiation, lumbar punches, (which used to be called "spinal taps" until the movie wrecked the procedure name), surgery, therapy, the whole kit and caboodle. My looks changed, and for a long while I was bald, hunch-y, skeletal with yellow skin and grey teeth, my own version of Montgomery Burns, with far less "excellent." I had no idea how much I liked my own bum until it went away. Add the impatience of youth and three years is a long time to stop what was a really fun life. I did well, I lived. My doctors said I shone from an inner glow -- probably caused by radiation. I learned that I'm stronger than I thought, and more loved than I could possibly imagine. I also have to not just dream about the life I want, but to live it. Hence this beautiful lifestyle I lead.
I'm an urban warrior. My armor consists of boutique clothes, good heels and a coat of mascara. I go to art openings, perform at cabarets, eat artisanal cheese in chic little bistros that always have a seat for me. In the city, I win. Don't get me wrong, I love nature and spending time in it, though more in a "Isn't this walk in the park lovely? Where are we going for martinis?"
A few years post-remission, I was ready for a new challenge, a celebration, a change. There is no change without some discomfort, so I got totally out of my comfort zone and took a week Kayaking in the Berkshires with First Descents. I packed work-out gear, socks and (gasp, this one was hard for me) bras without underwire. Even my luggage was out of its comfort zone: a tiny travel tube of waterproof mascara, just in case.
I had driven 10 hours with my friend Frankie to get there. She and I met at a cancer networking group for young women, and after a few years we were the only two left standing. Frankie and I are sisters of a sadder sort. We were going to First Descents for our lost friends as much as for ourselves.
Tired and cranky from the long trip, we arrived at a beautiful farm house equipped with a huge kitchen, rooms on three floors and a hot tub. I was expecting something more rustic. Phew! With a chef who cooked holistic, healthy, organic food. Phew, phew! Then a handsome man not wearing a shirt took our bags up to our room. Phew! Phew! Phew! This is my kind of healing.
There were 12 participants, from all across the country, the only thing in common was being forced to stop before we got to really start, get revved up, in our adult life. We were jocks and artsies, toughies and nerds, all thrown together in this cancer clique.
What's good about that is you can talk about illness without someone looking at you, tilting their head and softly saying "you're so brave." Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, brave. Let's brave something other than cancer. Let's hurt because our arms are tired of paddling and our nose is full of lake water. Yeah! And when we were challenged by the river, I learned that the trick to kayaking is the same trick I used to navigate my illness -- you flow. Fighting against the current lands you upside-down, underwater, with your head bouncing against rocks. Being angry at cancer is the same thing, using your energy fighting what is happening will only deplete your resources. So flow, baby. Easier said than done, I know. You still have to paddle, and paddle hard, but know you are being pushed forward by the current. For me, it was a current of friends, family and an excellent medical team.
When I got home from kayaking, I unpacked the unused tube of mascara. In truth, I felt more beautiful kayaking on that river than I have in a long time. Though I'm still looking for the best jewelry to match my wetsuit and life jacket.
Marjorie Malpass is a writer, actor and corporate trainer based out of Toronto, Canada, who spent a week Kayaking with FD the summer of 2012.
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