Thursday, December 17, 2015

The weight of gratitude

It's just a random Thursday in December.  It's not an anniversary of anything joyous or tragic.  Perhaps it's the joy that my kids brought to our activities this evening, or the successes at work today, or the excellent playlist I put together on Spotify, or the family I'm missing, but my heart is really full.  And I felt like writing about it.

After work I took my student out for a beer to celebrate the submission of his first manuscript.  It's a big accomplishment in a graduate student's career, and I wanted to mark it with a social outing.  We were joined by our collaborators after we had all bashed some code in a 2-hour bioinformatics sesh.  Everyone was feeling accomplished and merry.

Before the beers arrived, my colleague, S., started a conversation with me by saying, so, how's everything going?  This is always a loaded question for me because I never know if the person is asking about normal things or cancer things.  People often want to know about cancer things but don't know how to ask about them directly, so I have to infer from the way they ask if they're inquiring about my holiday shopping achievements or my PET scan results.  You can imagine the difference:  "How are things going?" in a light, skippy tone, vs. "How are things going?" with emphasis and gravity.  I don't see S. very often, so it was hard to distinguish what type of "how's it going" she meant.  I opted for a response of, "Really great, thanks!  I have treatment tomorrow, but last year it fell on the day after Christmas so tomorrow's a pretty good deal...".  I felt ridiculous and wished I had gone the route of discussing what Santa is bringing my kids.  Fortunately she's great and saved my lousy conversationalist self by diverting the conversation elsewhere.  I suppose the positive spin on this is that my cancer is a normal part of my upbeat existence, but I do feel badly for all of the innocent friends, family, and colleagues who fall under my cancer-accepting bus during normal conversations.  Please know that it's something I'm working on.

This brought to mind the news that I had yet another clean PET scan in November, on the Monday after Thanksgiving.  I've lost track now--is that three or four clean ones in a row?  Perhaps five?  It's a small mountain of clean PET scans.  You should know that I do not take any of them for granted, although the result of each one is a bit surreal.  In my mind I have stage 4 breast cancer, but the scans seem to be taunting, "no you don't".  Then my treatments say, "yes, you do".  Then the scans say, "no, you don't."  This argument can go on for the next decade as far as I'm concerned.  Whatevs.

Speaking of 10 years, my Medical Oncologist was on the radio a week or so ago because her research study made the popular press.  She was the principal investigator on an analysis of data from women who had stage 4 breast cancer between 1988-2011.  The part that I keep hearing on the news is that of these stage 4 patients, the 10-year survival rate for those who had surgery to remove their primary cancer was almost 10%.  The survival rate of those who did not have surgery was only 2.9%.  This news got me all excited because I of course chose to have surgery, so I have the potential to fall in with the 10%-ers.  My decision to have surgery was a big deal because none of the medical professionals could advise me on whether or not to keep or remove the breast.  All four surgical oncologists at the fancy hospital discussed my case at Tumor Board said that my case was a medical gray area, and so the decision was mine.  It was clear to me and my gut feelings that the breast had to go, and these new data seem to validate my decision.  10%!  That's a fantastic number.  As I have sometimes complained about when it comes to experiencing a rare side effect, I've rarely fallen in with the majority in my activities, so this is one time I'll be elated to be a part of the minority.  #bethe10%    

All of these thoughts were in my mind tonight as I was running the sewing machine on Calvin's Christmas present in between dance breaks with my daughters.  Azalea was choreographing an elaborate duet in the kitchen, sketching diagrams on the whiteboard for Eleanor and I to follow.  I sewed while she drew the next position, then she'd call me in to run through the dance with Eleanor.  Eleanor was my sewing buddy, pushing the pedal on the sewing machine at my instruction.  We finished both the gift and the dance, leaving all of us feeling full of creativity and productivity in equal measure.

They are such treasures, my daughters.  I am so grateful to be here to dance and sew with them.
Then Bruno Mars starting crooning over the bluetooth speaker, "You can count on me like 1, 2, 3, and I'll be there..."  I started thinking about all of the people who have been "there" for me.  I started to worry that I haven't been "there" for all of my loved ones in this year of recovery.  Have I been too selfish?  Have I spent enough time tending to the needs of others?  I don't think so.  So many people are in my heart to reach out to.  Hopefully I can improve the balance as I continue to survive.  
In the meantime, I have a few more nights with the sewing machine in my future as the Christmas holiday approaches, and hopefully the dance parties will continue in tandem. My heart is filled with gratitude for this life.