Sunday, August 24, 2014
Who, me? Aging? So, I turned 60 in January 2013, big deal. “Oh, you’ll see. Being over 60 is different,” friends said. “Not for me” was my constant retort. I have tons of energy. I’m healthy as a horse. I love my work as the RN Director of the Palliative Care Program at Jewish Family and Children’s Services. I have a loving relationship, great friends, and I know how to take care of myself.
Enter stage left field: serious illness.
This cannot possibly be happening to me. I’m not the patient; I’m the nurse. I’m not the care-receiver; I’m the caregiver. I’m only 60. I can’t possibly have cancer. I teach people about dealing with serious illness and coping with death and dying. I’m not the sick person.
Not until now. Age 60+. Suddenly, I am a patient, and it’s much harder than I imagined. It’s horrendous.
I really do not have time for this illness stuff. I have work to do. I have presentations to give, an online course to finish. And why should I have a genetic mutation? This really makes me mad. What the hell happened in my chromosomes that this little BRCA 1 gene got turned on? I am mad at life, at God, at a healthcare system that does not give anyone, including me, all the information that is needed to navigate the journey of a serious illness. I’m really mad about that. And I know how to navigate the system. I’ve been doing it for other folks for over 20 years. I am an advocate, so don’t tell me that the side effects will only last 3 days. That is a lie!
My primary care MD suggests I read the book Breast Cancer, Let me Check My Schedule!
OK, God, Goddess, Buddha, Great Spirit, whomever you are, whatever you are, it’s me here, your humble servant. Listen, I know I’ve made some mistakes. I haven’t been perfect. I eat sweets now and then. I love almond croissants and scones. I love Bi-Rite salted caramel ice cream, and Delfina pizza. I don’t work out long enough most days. I work too many hours most of the time.
But please, I promise: I will be better.
If you could just spare me from chemotherapy and radiation, I swear I will stop eating sugar. I’ll stop taking on too many projects, and I’ll work out and do more yoga.
OK, I know, I have to do chemotherapy, even though I have Stage 2 disease, because I am a nurse and I do know what the pathology report means. I know I don’t really have a choice here. But, I promise, if you get rid of the cancer in just one round of chemo, I really promise I’ll be good. Maybe even become a vegan. Please!
During chemo, I found myself so exhausted, so weak, so sick, and sometimes unable to walk up a flight of stairs or enjoy any of my favorite foods. My body hurt, my mind wandered to thoughts about death and dying and how it might just be easier than life with cancer. Some days, all I could do was stare out the window and cry. I cried for myself, for all those on the path of serious illness, for the insanity of a world where cancer has become an epidemic.
I’m not a victim to illness or aging. I am simply living my life and even though I never expected that I would be the first one of my friends to confront “life limiting illness.” But cancer is not my predator or the snake about to strike. I cannot hold cancer as the potential ruin of the rest of my life, because then I will live my days in fear. Cancer is simply one of my spiritual teachers, and I’ve had many great ones along the way. But perhaps cancer is the first one to slow me down enough so that I really have time to listen to what it is saying. It has stopped me right in my tracks, quite literally, and made me do all the things that I have wanted to do for so long—breathe more deeply, move more slowly and consciously, love more fully.
Our hardest lessons are so often our most profound.
And what I have learned to accept and appreciate about the aging process, and about illness, is the truth of the serenity prayer: We have more ability to accept the things we cannot change, more courage to change the things we can, and more wisdom to know the difference.
Judith Redwing Keyssar is a nurse, author and Director of the Palliative Care Program at Jewish Family and Children’s Services.