A wise friend who also helps guide me on my healing journey posted a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” as part of a workshop the other day:
“It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip. I mean – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.”
How do I feel about that?
It instantly took me back (kind of of like a movie time warp, where I hurtled through a cosmic tunnel to my past. No drugs were involved).
It was to the least cancer-y time of my life.
I think of my breast cancer as a lifelong journey, hopefully to end up dying in my sleep at 101 after a night of partying. Hence the name of this website. But the quote above took me back to a real journey that had nothing to with my health issues.
It was 2004. I got what should have been a plum assignment at work – head to Italy for an audit of my client’s Italian subsidiary. Problem? It wasn’t originally my assignment, and I was asked to do it a week before I needed to be there. I was already swamped with other projects, and I had never traveled outside of the U.S., with the exception of Canada. I don’t speak Italian. I needed time to get comfortable with the idea, I needed to research and prepare, but that wasn’t how my job worked. I spent the next week frantically expediting my passport, trying to catch up on the work I was already doing, and start prepping for the new information. I was almost starting to look forward to the adventure.
Then the other shoe dropped.
I was scheduled on the job with a co-worker, who was already in Italy. He was going to meet me at the hotel, do some sightseeing that weekend, then drive with me to the client’s office. Two days before I left, he called me to update on his progress. He mentioned at the end of the call that his mother had been diagnosed with a serious disease, and he would be pulling back from traveling after this trip. I gave him my sympathies, and hung up.
The day before I flew out, he called again. His mother had been suddenly downgraded, and they expected to lose her any day. He was heading home the next day, probably literally passing me in the air as I flew in the other direction. I felt horribly for him, told him to drop and go, and that I would take care of everything with the client. Just go.
After I hung up the phone, I went into panic mode. I was legitimately terrified. I needed to rent a car. I needed to figure out how to navigate around Italy (in the days before gps. Even mapquest didn’t work well when you were out of the US.) I was basically dropping into a foreign environment where I would be lost.
On top of everything, it should be understood that I have always suffered from severe social anxiety and shyness. So it is not in my nature to be outgoing and adventurous – even though I desperately want to be.
So I set off on my trip. It went south halfway to the airport when I realized I forgot to pack any shoes – all I had were the casual sandals on my feet, not really professional attire. My flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam was delayed for hours, and I missed my connection to Venice. I arrived in Venice at 2 am, and had to deal with a cranky car rental agent. I managed to drive out to Venice, found the parking garage, but couldn’t find my hotel. If you have ever been to Venice, you know that you can’t drive beyond the entrance to the island. After that, it’s all dark alleyways. Romantic and historic, but also really confusing if you don’t know where you are going. The few people I looked to for help either didn’t understand me, or acted like I was stupid for being lost. Exhausted, I went back to the mainland, found a hotel, and slept.
The next morning, I contacted the original hotel to let them know I wasn’t coming for my second night, and was berated again for not finding it the night before. I went out to explore, and found the area I was in to be underwhelming. Sort of brown and dirty. The following morning, I loaded up the car and made the hour trek to the town where the client was located. I had an encounter with a toll booth that I couldn’t get to take my credit card (probably because the instructions were in Italian.) I found the town, but I had never been able to get the location on my mapquest directions exact, so I still didn’t know where to find the office. I finally stopped at a gas station and managed to get directions by frantically pointing at the company name and address (thankfully I was on the right road, just needed to go back in the other direction).
It was better after that – the accounting manager, who spoke flawless English, took me under his wing. The hotel was frequented by guests from numerous American subsidiaries, and as a result, most staff spoke English. But I was exhausted, I had vicious jet lag manifested as total insomnia, and I was doing the job of two people. I didn’t sleep all week. I had a constant headache. I just wanted to go home.
I spent the next weekend exploring Venice (even found my original hotel), but I was done. I felt battered and bruised, and wanted to go back to my own world.
After I arrived back home, it suddenly occurred to me what I had actually accomplished. I faced my fears, all of them. My fear of people, of being out of place, of being lost, of being judged, of being alone. I faced those fears, and every time something went awry, I took a deep breath and figured out my options. I made the hard decisions, and took the difficult road. And I came out of it successfully. Not only did I face my own inner demons, I was praised for the quality of my work. And the trip wasn’t all bad. I made new friends, ate fantastic food, and got to sight see in one of the most picturesque vacation destinations ever (even if I didn’t really care for it).
What does this have to do with my cancer journey? It taught me something. It taught me that if I can face all my fears, and end up successful, then I can figure out how to cope with everything else in life that comes my way. Life is complicated, painful, and unexpected. You think you can’t do something – until you do it.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt like all the breath was knocked out of me. How was I going to do all of this? I don’t know, I just pushed the fear aside and starting consulting with doctors.
When the surgeon called me to tell me that I had a significant number of lymph nodes involved and would need chemo, it was like I was kicked in the stomach. What did I do? I immediately called my oncologist, who talked me off of the ledge.
When I was four months into chemo, I sat on the edge of my bed one Tuesday night, and cried because I couldn’t face the prospect of going to the infusion center the next morning to have yet another infusion of toxic chemicals that made me feel horrible. What did I decide without hesitation? I got out of bed the next morning, got dressed, and went to chemo.
I have suffered from severe anxiety these last four years. It’s not unusual for my chest to tighten up, my breathing to stop, my hot flashes to flare, and my mind to panic. I’m terrified. No reason needed. What have I done every single time? I force myself to calm. I do breathing exercises, I stop and meditate, I examine my mind for explanations. I don’t let the fear rule me. I try to step away and live in the moment.
Because the fear is always going to be there. We have to co-exist. But every traumatic experience in my life, from that hellish Europe trip to a never-ending tussle with breast cancer, has taught me that I can do whatever I need to. No matter what the fear is, I will find a way to overcome it. Because in most cases, there really isn’t an option.
If I can do breast cancer, I can do anything. Even if that means doing cancer again. Fear won’t be riding shotgun, it will be in the backseat (or maybe even in the trunk).
No backseat drivers allowed.
For more information on navigating breast cancer, please see our website http://www.driventosurvive.org