He had his head together, but I could tell he hung by his fingertips. Sometimes, as he talked about his wife and grandkids, his eyes welled up with tears, but managed to keep it together for social graces, if nothing else. Recently diagnosed, he was understandably scared, for the prognosis wasn’t good. I didn’t know exactly what to say, as an experience of cancer is as complex as the number of individuals diagnosed, but I did have enough trials over the past 2 1/2 years to at least touch on the basics. In the end, however, I could only relay the one lesson that hasn’t seemed to change for me or for anyone else I know that is facing cancer.
Nothing goes as planned.
Life expectancies change. Treatments fail and treatments succeed. Survival rates are circumvented by anomalies. An oncologist tells you one plan while your other oncologist changes it. Expectations of surgery are stated, but when you wake your world is altered beyond repair. And what you always believe will happen, within all expectation of reason…doesn’t.
It’s an awful existence within which to reside, as life plans feel forever precarious, tenuous, like walking on a tightrope stretched between certain death or pulled so taut it’s liable to break without warning. You want to plan for a future, but the ravages of treatment yet to be felt leave you unable to commit. You really, truly, deeply feel that everything will be all right and the future is as open as it was pre-diagnosis, but something about that hopeful vision feels hollow, romanticized, and dangerous. You wonder if you can take one more accumulated disappointment. You stop believing in a life of relative permanence. You give up on giving in to love and trust.
You just wait, because nothing is guaranteed, not even the small expectations, the things you CAN reasonably expect. Those just don’t exist anymore. But somehow, you must still navigate through a life that depends upon future planning, upon preparing for the good or the bad…but how?
I told this stranger, a relation that quickly faded into the unfortunate bonds of an abbreviated life through cancer, that nothing is guaranteed, in hopes that it would be received as a positive sentiment. I hoped to prepare him for the unexpected treatments and changes in treatments and outcomes of treatments that would come, but to also remember that the unexpecteds apply to the odds as well. Some people that are supposed to be dead…aren’t. I’m proving that.
I was comfortable in my position as I told him all this, but it was a reminder that couldn’t have come at a better time. I had my own plan laid out before me, culminating in a third surgery that I hoped (irresponsibly) would follow a trend of quick recovery and push me towards distant goals I sketched into the coming year. And then…nothing went as planned. The surgical oncology office called to tell me that our State health insurance abruptly switched, leaving half their patients (including me) and the office itself scrambling to adjust. I, fortunately, remained covered through medicaid, but the office needed to be approved in the State plan before we could move forward with surgery, so until then, I can’t have surgery. All my planning, my countdown to surgery, my visions for the months and year to come went up like smoke, like a mirage of hope, into that emotional space I’ve had to navigate since diagnosis when everything I thought was sensible and reasonable no longer was. Like the floor falling out from beneath me, I flailed my arms trying to grasp onto something to ground me again, to make new plans, no matter how precarious.
Unfortunately, until a new surgery date is set, I won’t have that precarious plan set in place again. Until then, I’ve decided to put my emotional expectations back into the only reliable part of my life, of which I have complete control…running. It truly is the only act I can control, manipulate, and serve to my needs. I can seek a certain emotional experience that, even if doesn’t go as planned, I at least know was of my doing. And so I’m readjusting my running to have SOMETHING I can rely on daily, as I wait for that call from my oncologist.
Specifically, my goal was to run the Runner’s World Half Marathon one week before my surgery, as a celebration, a final opportunity to close out my between surgery running with an effort as complete as I could manage. And that is still my goal, but now I have a space after the run that allows for more running, which gives me something to look forward to, silver linings amongst a lot of threatening clouds rolling in. First, though, I’ve got 13.1 miles to cover as fast as I can.
Which brings me back to guarantees and expectations.
Running is something of a formulaic equation, where one puts in the appropriate amount of work to generate a specific physical outcome. It surely isn’t as defined as 1 + 1 = 2, but there are some hard and fast rules to progressing as a competitive runner. I’ve been following this mathematical approach to my running as I gear up for the Half, but I know I can’t rely on any equation to get me to the finish line. There are too many changing variables and nothing is guaranteed.
A few encouraging runs had me quickly eyeing a sub-1:20 half, and although that is an embarrassing finish compared to my pre-diagnosis running self, it’s more than respectable at this point. And yet, I got scared. All of a sudden I had claimed an expectation, a guarantee come race day, that I’m not ready to place my emotional excitement within. Maybe it’s a holdover from the past 2 1/2 years, but where I would unreservedly state a finishing time and go for it, now the number feels like a dangerous mirage, a promise of excitement left to fade in a haze of unexpecteds. I’m just not ready to do that anymore. I can’t commit. Nothing is guaranteed and I’m tired of being let down. I’m tired of understanding what SHOULD happen, only to take a step forward and fall off a cliff. This whole past 2 1/2 years feels like I was running towards the finish line when 400 meters from breaking the tape I ran right off a cliff, and I’ve been falling ever since.
So I’ve personally redacted my expectation of a finish time. I’ve shut off the clock, thrown away my watch. I’m just going to run and see what happens.
Speaking of throwing away my watch. I am going to run this half-marathon (he says with great trepidation of everything going as planned to the start line…does he read anything he writes?), but I’m also going back to my roots with this one. With no idea of what the course looks like. No idea what the body is capable of at this point. No expectation of past performances to build upon. No watch.
The beginning of my running career consisted of a repetitive start line photo, a string of runners all leaning forward, their heads down and fingers gently resting on the start button of their watches. I stood somewhere in that line, leaning forward all the same, but arms cocked in mid-stride pose, watchless, looking down the course. I didn’t know splits, pacing, anything. I just ran. I let the chips fall where they may when I made it to the finish. As fortune would have it, I often found myself crossing the line first, despite doing it “all wrong.” But there was something satisfying, even liberating about that. I liked to just go by feel, to run within myself, and damn the watch. No knowledge of pace was going to change what my body could do within the moment. I had no expectation, no guarantee of time. What happened is what showed on the clock when I crossed the line.
So I’m going back to my early days of competitive running, when I had no expectations, no guarantees, no plan. It simply doesn’t matter what happens from here on out. I’m going forward and waiting for the gun to go off, then finding my way to the finish, however that plays out. I don’t expect it to go smoothly or easily or leave me in personal victory…but maybe it will.
And I’m going forward and waiting for the phone call, then finding my way to the other side of surgery, however that plays out. I don’t expect it to go smoothly or easily or leave me in personal victory…but maybe it will.
There are no guarantees. Nothing goes as planned…there is only finding one’s way through the course. Now, I just have to get to the start.