A few weeks ago, I received starling news. Dr. Lisa Cassileth , my reconstructive surgeon, and her office nominated me for the American Society of Plastic Surgeon's Patient of Courage Award. To say I am stunned, honored and touched would be an understatement.
I've been ruminating for weeks on what courage means and who I think is courageous in the World. I've thought of all the young soldiers fighting for a war they didn't vote for and the children who are fighting for their lives from cancer and other diseases. I've thought of the American casualties of Katrina and the families they left behind. I've thought of my father and the second job he took when we needed extra money despite his 60-70 hour per week first job.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." As I reflect on her quote, flashes of all the moments I felt "I can't do this," race like a picture slideshow on fast forward in my mind, beginning with the day I was diagnosed. That moment is etched in my memory in much the same way that American's know where they were when Kennedy was shot or when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
I know I felt like time slowed down as my legs quivered and my mouth foamed while my body's central nervous system responded in shock. I recall choking out "its cancer," for the first time, two small words with a mere nine letters that bear so much weight on the human heart few can top them. I had to travel from New York City back to Los Angeles (LA) the following day having no idea how I would take that 5 ½ hour trip by myself. I did it anyway.
When I was waking up from surgery, I heard a nurse in my cubicle say; "her blood pressure is only 65 over 35". Still dopey from the anesthesia, I was just barely lucid enough to be terrified. I wondered "why did I do this? Wasn't there another way?" Three days later I received a blood transfusion. Indicative of the levels of iron in your blood, my ---- count went from a 7 to an 8. My doctors were thrilled. I was still scared. But, somewhere in me I found enough strength to let them remove the catheter so I could take my first steps. One day later I got to go home.
The first time I looked at my reconstructed breasts, my oldest and best friend, Sara, was redressing my wounds. I looked down and saw swollen mounds that were black, blue, and green with bruising. A raw, burst blister was still oozing on my right breast where I used to have a nipple. I cried while Sara gingerly patched me up with the same precision she uses in her dental practice. Images of our youth danced in my mind: taking baths together during our sleepovers, the first time we each French kissed a boy or all the innocent summers we had long before we knew what the word cancer meant. Sara repeated "they look good," like a mantra to help me calm down. I knew my breasts would heal but I also knew nothing would ever be the same again.
The first time I had chemo, I thought I was dying. I experienced bone pain for three days that can only be described as feeling like I was run over by a few Mac trucks. At one point, I thought there was absolutely no way I could go through chemo again. At least three layers of my tongue had burned off, replaced by little sores that made it close to impossible to talk, drink or eat. Diarrhea dehydrated me to the point that a nurse came to my house to administer IV fluids. Just when I started to come out of the worst of it, my entire face broke out in pustules so large I thought I was in a Harry Potter movie. That same week, I boarded a plane to Washington, DC so I could surprise my family at the Race for the Cure. Two weeks later, I headed back to the Oncology Center for round two of chemo. My blood pressure told the nurse of my fear. It was 142 over 90, the highest it has ever been in my entire life. I flew to New York City one week later to surprise my client's leadership team and run an off-site meeting in person.
Someone once told me that when I am afraid to take action anyway. That advice became core to who I am. The only way I knew to confront my cancer was to get in action. That's why I blog. That's why I started a cancer foundation. And that's why I shaved my head before chemo made my hair fall out. I am still afraid.
I'm afraid I'll never get married. I'm afraid I'll get cancer again and have to endure longer rounds of chemo. I'm afraid when I die it will be painful. I know these are fears I've conjured up in my mind. I know that courage does not exist without them. I used to race through life, running from my fears at a frantic pace trying to achieve all the things I was afraid I would never do before I died.
But then I got cancer. And I stared death in its face and am acting anyway.