I don’t want to die. I’ve said this before, and I hear the same expected chorus of refrain come back to me…”Duh.” I know, it sounds relatively absurd to voice, but there is a reality to this consideration that many in more fortunate circumstances don’t necessarily understand, because sometimes…it all does seem to get too much. In this cancer “battle” (for lack of a better term) with no definitive timeline of conclusion, the waiting can really wear on you. It’s different when you know the pains and frustrations are going to end, like in a race, but something else entirely when you imagine battling through the daily discomforts until…well…an unhappy ending. When you realize that all this struggling can still end in defeat, the weight feels even heavier, as if the effort doesn’t actually matter. Sometimes, the struggle just doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes it gets really old walking (and running) on feet consumed with pain, watching the skin on my hands dry and flake away, having to weigh the effect of every meal I eat, working against the overall physical fatigue and emotional frustration of doing so every day. And if this sounds a little like the struggles we go through as distance runners, it’s because there are parallels….just imagine taking the pain and fatigue of 100 mile weeks…and multiplying them by 10. Or 100.
I’m not going to cover up the desperation either. I’ve ran through the considerations of taking my own life in light of this desperation. I’ve talked to friends about this and they, compassionately, acknowledged my considerations. Mind you, I don’t want to take my own life and don’t dwell on the circumstances that would bring me to that point, but in moments of desperation…those considerations entered my thoughts. Don’t worry, it’s healthy. To become introspective across the emotional spectrum is a defense mechanism and acknowledgement that something is amiss. Again, I don’t want to be in the position to have these considerations, and am glad that I’m away from that desperation, but I understand when others face down the agency of managing their own mortality.
I do, however, want to live, and imagine coming through this cancering experience in victory and triumph, instead of absolute defeat. It was that image which entered my consciousness while out on a run today, a triumphant lifting of the arms as I broke the tape of the cancer experience, my surgeon mouthing the words, “You’re cancer-free.” That is the finish I hope to experience. But, as we distance runners well know, there are other potential outcomes to face. First, though, the preferred envisioning involves tackling a course, no matter how difficult, feeling the physical wear and tear, but running the race well, coming to the finish in victory and living to fight another day. My vision for cancer is no different.
Then there is the converse. Either the strains of the course proved too difficult or the body was unprepared, too weak to fight off the increasing deterioration, and we fall short of the finish line, dropping out in complete defeat, metaphorically “dying” as we like to put it. In the cancer experience, though, there is no metaphor. Dying is dying. And the course is unfinished. It just goes on until someone draws a line in the sand and you cross it, finishing before you even realize it’s over, when someone says, “You’re done. You’re cancer-free. The scan came back negative.” Until then, you just run and run, hoping you prepared well enough, building enough strength to take on every obstacle the course throws in your path, to make it over each hill, each mountain. The problem is, you don’t always know what’s coming or when the course ends. So, you just put your head down and go. You have little choice. Admittedly, some obstacles are foreseen and you can do a little preparing. The next hill…err, mountain…in my course will be met on August 11th, when I find myself at it’s base. HIPEC mountain we can call it. It will take me some time to climb up and over, very gradually picking up speed on the descent, but I’m confident I’ll get there. Where I go after that…well…who knows. Either my body is strong enough to keep taking on the unseen obstacles to come, or I run across the finish line with increasing speed and my hands in the air.
I find a middle ground. I cross the line defeated, as we distance runners sometimes do. The course throws obstacles in our path that break us down, slowly, over and over. Our muscles tire and drain, shifting strength to other areas of the body, then drain those, until there is nothing left before the finish and we find our pace slowing further and further, our heart beating out of control, our motivation decreasing with the effort increasing, until we reach the finish in desperation….sometimes walking through with our heads hung low, and others, crumpling to our knees in total exhaustion. But….we finish. That is a victory in it’s own right, and with cancer, it’s more than just a fulfillment, it’s an absolute triumph. It’s cause for celebration instead of disappointment, because no matter how we get there, to cross the finish line is the ultimate goal. And most importantly, the triumph is in what comes next, both in running and disease…the recovery. We know, no matter how the finish is reached, that whatever damage has been done up to that point, a recovery, a regeneration will follow and we’ll live to fight another day. In running, that means a shot at redemption, at revenge. In cancer, it means to live another day, without restriction.
It’s something telling about the cancer experience that when even crossing the finish, while broken and beaten, is cause for celebration. It is a victory. I’ll take either outcome, whether that necessitates doing the “survival shuffle” (another apt comparison), or a full on sprint…just as long as I don’t “die”. Metaphorically and literally.
There is one more parallel to point out. We runners will talk about our PR’s and our finishing times, because they are summaries of our goals and efforts, measurable against others and in their own right, but that is only for simplicity sake. Get us talking long enough and we’ll tell you about the course, about the the hills and heat we had to overcome, about the parts that wore us down and where we felt strong and light. We’ll tell you about everything that happened between the time the gun went off and when we made it to the finish, because we don’t run to break the tape….we run to run. We run for the experience. We run for everything in between the start and finish…no matter the outcome.
My approach to this cancer experience is no different. I don’t know where the finish line is. I don’t know what obstacles will spring up before me. I don’t know when I’ll feel broken and beaten or when I’ll feel strong and swift, but I’m going to make the most of all this time between the proverbial start and the elusive finish….because that’s why we run. That’s why I live. And that’s why I don’t want to die.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge those in the race with disease that don’t know where their finish line lies, but do know there are no more descents, no more tailwinds and no victory at the finish. There is only the efforts they have until the body breathes it’s last breath. All I can offer are these words….don’t die because you stopped breathing…die because you ran out of breath. I’ll run with you for as long as I can, and then try to reach the finish for you.