On to the dark detour called chemo – but I’m not alone

Peggy_newPeggy Cumming, is a wife, mother, grandmother of 6, sister, niece, cousin and friend, as well as a teacher - retired after 34 years in the classroom - and an athlete.  She is now recovering from thoracic surgery.

 

Several years ago I was at a café on Bank Street in Ottawa with two friends - Sarah, my long-time neighbour, and Amy, a breast cancer survivor, a ‘Pink Friend’. Our conversation drifted to memories of New Year’s Eve at the Millennium. Sarah reminisced about her New Year’s wedding, at which I was a guest. She remembered glowing candles in the church, twinkling fairy lights, her husband’s tuxedo, and her ball gown. Amy paused for a moment, and then contributed, “I remember that night; that’s the night my hair fell out!” Amy stated the bare fact, leaving the emotional content for me to paint for myself.

The re-telling of this story always produces laughter, although I only tell it in sensitive circumstances. But I remember that conversation for many reasons. I am not a philosopher, and thousands before me have poured their energy into the question of random universal events. But I do wonder if the Universe has a Poker Dealer who randomly flips down cards for the day: today – joy for you, and despair for you! Extremes of emotion, but at polar opposites. Is your given card simply a matter of Good Luck or Bad Luck?

Back to Amy, one of my cherished circle of Pink Friends. We met each other through the Ottawa breast cancer dragon boat team more than fifteen years ago after we had experienced diagnosis and treatment. We had all Been There, Done That, Got the Pink T-shirt! Twenty nine years ago, my treatment was a lumpectomy and radiation, but most of the women experienced mastectomy and chemo. Over the years of our friendships, around campfires, on hikes, and while sipping wine, we have shared the memories of treatments and experiences, and our common emotions. I have heard a lot about chemo – chemo brain, metallic mouth, stiff joints … the good, the bad, the ugly … and the funny!

I wondered how sharing chemo stories could be funny. Was it the discovery of commonality of experience? Was it the relief of companionship? Or was it simply better to laugh than to cry. It really doesn’t matter. It is enough for me that these Pink Friends survived chemo and now live their lives with ferocious resilience, brave love, and easy laughter. For years I have watched them wring every drop of happiness and hilarity out of life, welcome new adventures with aplomb, and shine with an inner light of joy.

We painfully learned that chemo is a not guaranteed ticket for longevity. The day after Chris’ funeral we started to pack up her worldly belongings, and laughed while selecting some of her hats and shoes to wear; after Mary’s funeral, we painted our toenails in her bright red signature colour. We have shared unbearable grief at far too many funerals, and in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, I see in my pink friends a fierce determination to live the best and fullest life possible.

My mother always said to me,

“It is not what happens to you in life; it is how you handle it that matters.”

With the start of my chemo looming, and the expectation of losing my hair and feeling rotten, I have been to YouTube to learn How to Tie a Turban when having Chemo and I have practiced in front of the mirror. But this is only practice. When it is real, will I be able to laugh? Will I find the courage to be strong? Will I heed my mother’s words and follow my Pink Friends’ example?

Chemo is a dark detour for me, an unwelcome, unplanned, unexpected bump in my desire for a healthy life. I know that my Pink Friends will shine a beam, like a pink lighthouse, guiding me through three months of uncertainty, lighting my way back to wellbeing. I imagine basking in the affectionate influence of their ‘joie de vivre’. On days when the Poker Dealer flips me a ‘nausea’ card, or a ‘hair-fall-out’ card, I will lean on their friendship and seek strength from their steadfast reassurance.

Fifteen years ago, when the Card Dealer dealt me ‘Pink Friends’, I had a Good Luck day!

Peggy has her own photoblog, the F-stops here, where she posts a photograph every day.

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