Cancer has been teaching my family how to live in the moment for almost a year now.
Ever since my stepmom, A., received a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in September 2018, we’ve been taking life one day at a time.
The nature of her illness is such that long-term plans are tentative so we make do with modest achievements instead. Like going to the farmers’ market on Saturday, or spending a couple of hours in town, or having my stepbrother and his partner come for dinner.
Illness has upended our perception of time, making us aware that what was seemingly limitless no longer is.
We now approach every new dawn with gratitude rather than entitlement.
When illness drastically shrinks your future, you make every day count.
Doing so means accepting new limitations, too. Much as you yearn to, you can’t push yourself when you’re that sick; your body simply doesn’t allow it anymore.
When my stepmom went straight from a round of heavy chemo to oral chemo, the side-effects were traumatic. Every time she was so sick she couldn’t even sit up, she expressed immense guilt at putting my father through this ordeal.
“I’m worried your father is going to collapse,” was the soundtrack of those first three months I spent in Europe, concern for her own wellbeing always coming second. No matter how often Dad and I reminded her to focus on herself because we were OK, she couldn’t let go of that guilt.
So my father came up with ways to deflect it and reframe their new reality instead.
Love is what keeps us all going.
We closed ranks the minute the diagnosis hit. Because I live on the West Coast of the US and my parents in France, I immediately started thinking about how best to be present for them. Being a faceless voice at the other end of a phone line wouldn’t do.
“A. comes first in everything, everywhere,” Dad tells me within a few hours of my landing in Paris last December, to make sure I understand how co-habitation is going to work. To me, the ground rules are self-evident and I expected nothing less. But he’s the master of the house and, to him, I’m still the chubby baby mooning the world in my cot so I listen intently.
He explains that things are wont to change dramatically from one hour to the next, be it daytime or nighttime. And they most certainly do, sometimes in the most harrowing way.
Acknowledging good times and small steps forward is therefore paramount to keeping my stepmom’s spirits up.
“It did us both a lot of good getting some air and sitting on that bench for a while, didn’t it?” Dad asks her one day after they return from spending an hour outdoors in the small park by their condo. “See, you’re doing alright,” he tells her.
Enjoying small things is key to never running out of joy.
Ever since I’ve been staying with my parents, not a day goes by without them recalling their many travel adventures of the last 20 years or so. As they both keep reminding me, happy memories have the power to carry you when the going gets tough.
Many are the hours we spend sitting around the kitchen table laughing so hard our stomachs hurt.
No one can ever be prepared for cancer.
Even when it’s not a delayed death sentence like Stage IV is, it has the same effect on a patient and their relatives as an earthquake, a tsunami, and a fire all at once.
In my stepmom’s case, much as we hope there’s a way to stall this cancer, we’re not sure it is even possible so we’ve learned to remain upright on shaky ground while simultaneously sinking as we watch the future go up in flames. And when one of us falters, there’s always an outstretched hand to grab hold of.
My parents are a miracle in motion. Until recently, Dad used to draw strength from his wife not getting worse while she used to draw strength from his obvious delight at her satisfying medical news, which happened anew with every new blood panel. “Not worse” was always good news because we had adjusted our expectations to accommodate the possible. And then metastases stopped responding to treatment and showing up in new places.
Magical thinking was never a luxury we could afford. Right now, we draw strength from the fact that my stepmom is being cared for by international experts at the Institut Curie in Paris; she’s also part of a worldwide research program. While we’re aware it may not save her life, it will hopefully help save other people’s.
While no one outwits death, you can always choose to surrender to the moment at any time.
Many of us are so busy projecting ourselves into a distant future that we tend to overlook the present. And yet, you don’t have to suffer from a terminal illness to make every day matter and start celebrating small victories.
Once you pause to acknowledge all that is good in your life, you’ll find it contains many nuggets of joy and you’ll be surprised at how accessible and plentiful contentment is, even in the most difficult of circumstances.