Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life Tapestry

When I began this blog about nine months ago, my intention was to write exclusively about travel and my experiences away from home. I thought that travel writing, even travel memoiring, was solely writing about day to day life on the road. Much as travel is an escape from day to day life at home, however, most of us do not, cannot, entirely leave our normal selves behind just because we’re disembarking from a saeung taew in Lampang, or eating warm, creamy pasteis de BelĂ©m near Lisbon, or buying a crazy bonfire skirt on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, or galloping bareback up a twisting forest service road in Clearwater National Forest. Most of us carry a bit of the fears and joys and mundanity of our everyday lives with us wherever we go.

For me, the biggest thing I carry around all the time is the fact that I’ve had breast cancer twice now. The first time I was 26; I had a recurrence less than two years after finishing my chemo and radiation, when I was 28. I’ve been in remission since then, over four years since finishing chemo for the second time. My remission has been supported by a continuation of some therapies—I am currently in the clinic every three weeks for about three hours, receiving an infusion of Herceptin and a pellet that blocks ovarian function, plus I take a teeny pill every morning. Every three months, I also get a battery of blood tests and a dose of Pamidronate (which brings clinic time up to about six hours), either a chest X-ray or a chest CT, and I visit with my doctor. Once a year I have bilateral mammograms and breast and brain MRIs. This is not an insignificant amount of time, and it was, I believe, misguided of me to assume that the effects of these things on my travel would be insignificant. They are not.

For one thing, having to be at the clinic every three weeks places a sometimes inconvenient framework around my flexibility. I liken the three weeks to a bungee cord—I can stretch my limits a little for a short time—having an infusion two days late or one day early—but nevertheless I have to plan carefully, which frequently has me in the clinic either the day I take off for somewhere or the day after I get back; thus I’m combining jet lag with my day or two of chemical adjustment.

The greatest effect at the moment, though, is my fear of flying. In June, I have my last infusion. I will be set free from this onerous, tedious, exasperating existence—or maybe I will have my safety net removed and come crashing into the ground. I believe that my fear of flying is related to my cancer in two ways.

One, it’s a clear transference of my fear of death. There’s a limit to what I can do to keep from dying of cancer. I can eat well, I can exercise, I can be honest with myself about what makes me happy and try to lead an examined life. I can avail myself of resources outside my own personal control, such as medical experts, literature, support groups. But ultimately, the outcome will not be decided in any clear way by me. Thousands of people die of cancer every year. There are no guarantees.

I can, however, guarantee that I won’t die in a plane crash (this tragedy in Chicago last December not withstanding): I just won’t fly. For someone who loves to travel, who loves to experience different cultures and different climates and who gets intense joy out of learning by doing, not flying would be a grave sacrifice. But, completely illogically, part of me thinks that that’s the one way to save my life. And so, naturally, whenever I fly, I feel like I’m tempting fate—not just that, I feel like I’m daring fate.

Two, flying is a transition, and transitions can be incredibly scary, particularly the one I’m entering now, winding down five years of chemically supported health and finding out if I can go it alone. Moreover, I have the habit of using foreign travel as an excuse to relax my standards for healthy eating and drinking—I have dessert or sweets regularly, I drink wine or beer or a cocktail (or some combination of all three) every night, I eat meats, cheeses, fats—in short, I allow the transition of flying to free me from habits I know to be reasonable, and usher me into a carefree lifestyle I crave but, deep down, fear.

My last 36 hours in London on this most recent trip, all alone, really brought these habits home to me. There was no one around to distract me from myself, from the three pints of cider I was drinking, the doughnut I was snacking on, the cheese and bread and chicken and bacon I was having for dinner (don’t ask). I couldn’t avoid examining my choices. Even as I was licking my fingers and reveling in the joys of consumption, a thread of worry, of consequence, the color of cancer, ran along at the base of my consciousness.

I see my life as a tapestry, and cancer, bile-yellow, is one of the threads. On its own, the color is jarring, blaring, nauseating. But woven in with the other threads, it creates a masterpiece. It throws the intense crimsons and plums of love into deep relief, adds an edge of fierce immediacy to the vivid, glinting goldenrods and platinums of joy, slides along subtly underscoring the periwinkles and indigos of peace and reflection. My life is infinitely the richer for it . . . but that doesn’t make the weaving easy.

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