Fear and Stage 4 – Bunny’s Santa Fe Story
Six years ago on March 27, 2013, I woke up in an Extended Stay Hotel in Houston near the medical center, dreading the day. We had arrived the afternoon before, driving to the hotel in a torrential downpour that had the underpasses downtown filling with water. I followed the taillights in front of me because that was all I could see, thinking that in New Mexico the traffic would slow down to accommodate the rain. In Houston everyone continued to drive 65 or 70. Rain is nothing in Houston and I had to race to stay up.
I woke dreading the day and smelling the moisture that is Houston every day, or at least every day in my experience. I had been there once before in the past couple of months to meet Dr. Curley, the surgeon who was going to cut me open and remove the 5.5 cm tumor on my ascending colon and the 4.5 cm tumor on my liver. That visit had been in January. The staff at MD Anderson had poked and prodded and inserted ivs. I’d had Pet scans and CT scans and blood tests; we had ridden up and down elevators with hundreds of other patients, all of us identifiable by the plastic wristband with our patient number prominently displayed. MD Anderson is an efficient and smoothly run facility treating tens of thousands of patients daily, but no one goes back to see a medical professional without that wristband and patient number.
I had been frightened during that first visit, wondering if Dr. Curley would deem me a good candidate for surgery to remove the two tumors that designated me as a stage 4 colon cancer patient. If the answer had been no, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
Now I was here for the surgery. And I was very afraid.
I would spend the day in another battery of tests, an EKG and yet another CT scan (diagnosed in November, I was about to have my seventh CT scan in four months), blood tests, a consult with the anesthesiology team, the pain team, the recovery team. I would meet with Dr. Curley one more time in my street clothes rather than the hospital gown I would wear the next day. I was happy that he was a native New Mexican. That gave me comfort.
My daughter Johanna, in her last semester of college at UNM and my caregiver through the chemo, testing, and medical trial I was enrolled in, furiously took notes so that there was no misstep on either side (that’s her in the photo with me, December 2012). And every time we met with a medical professional, I signed a document that said I acknowledged that the surgery and the anesthesia and the pain management all had the potential to end in death.
I’m pragmatic; I understand that life itself ends in death. I certainly knew that stage 4 cancer could end in death. But I had never been required to sign so many documents that said tomorrow might possibly the day it happened.
It was a long and tiresome day and my parents, sister, and her husband were coming to Houston at the end of it. There would be comfort in that and there was comfort in thinking that two days from now, the cancer would be hopefully be out of my body.
But mostly there was fear. And that incessant rain.
Six years is a long time, and it’s also the blink of an eye. The surgery went well. MD Anderson and Dr. Curley saved my life. I came home to Santa Fe to heal with a nine and a half-inch scar and the mark of 26 staples on my navel. When I look back on that day six years ago when fear overwhelmed me (us), I’m astounded by how far we’ve come.
Fear is not the worst thing in the world. It gives us focus. It motivates us. It hopefully moves us forward from where we were to a better place. Sometimes you have to wade into the middle of your fears and trust that you’re doing the right thing. Frequently you’re unsure what that right thing is.
It is only when fear stops us that it wins.
When I was first diagnosed, my pastor Martin Ban prayed a lovely prayer for me right before my first consult with my oncologist. He didn’t ask for healing, like many of the Southern Baptist preachers of my childhood would have done. He asked that I have blinders on, that I only see the one hurdle in front of me every day, and that I understand that I had the strength and grace and courage, as well as the love and support from the people around me to get over that one hurdle. That prayer and thought propelled me through many days when fear was the biggest hurdle of all.
I am years and miles away from that Houston hotel room and all that fear and yet it seems like yesterday. I am officially, amazingly cancer free today. Despite that incredible news, I still have daily hurdles and fears in my life. Every day I take a hard look at what’s in front of me and then I move forward, knowing that I am given the grace and courage to get over them. It’s worked before and I know it will work again.