Caution: This is a morbid yet strangely happy post. It’s a weird post for me. It’s for all of you who are fogged out in the stressed-out “just getting by” zone, and for those of you who are just depressed as all hell. I have words about this. Read on.
I just got my second clear MRI. No cancer.
MRIs suck. It’s not the needle in your arm, the cold medicine injected up your veins, the tight white sterile tube you’re sucked in, or the grinding, deafening sounds that rip through your body. That’s all fine.
It’s the wondering what they see. And that you have to wait. And that those pains I have might go unexplained, which is better than if they DO get explained . . . as cancer.
I rose up high in relief for an evening after my doctor emailed me that they saw nothing. Year 3. You got more time, Sum.
Then I went to my first Barre fitness class at a new fitness center today, and the teacher announces they have a card to send to one of their students . . . who has Stage 3 lung cancer.
Yup, I think, of course. Everywhere I go. After you’ve had cancer, it’s like walking in a maze where all roads lead to cancer. There’s literally someone . . . everywhere . . . you. . . . go. Either it’s you or someone else in the room.
Years ago, I had someone tell me I was holding something over them “like the Sword of Damocles.” I’d never heard the term. I was embarrassed. Not only because it sounded suspiciously like they were calling me an asshole, but because I’m well read and I hadn’t heard that phrase.
The Sword of Damocles is from Greek myth. It’s basically a sword that dangles over your head, and you never know it will drop and kill you. Spectacular.
And that is any diagnosis . . . cancer, heart failure, you name it. It’s the Sword of Damocles, and it reminds you how tenuous your life is.
However, once you realize that you have one of these above your head, you actually have a huge number of choices what to do with it. You can ignore it. You can fear it. Or you can shuffle along on under it, making your life go on as best you can.
Almost all of us have an uneasy relationship with our Sword. Some of us fear it, others embrace the idea with relief, and some of us just don’t think about it enough to have formed any deep feeling about it at all.
Most of us are in that last camp—death and illness are really far off and kind of interesting in theory, but it’s like really far away and not something we think about, ever.
Which is actually a good place to be. It’s where you can forge ahead fearlessly and invincibly. You get a TON done in this phase of being. Most of us in our 20s, 30s, and 40s are there.
You’re building, and racing, and sharpening your blade in life. You make money, build your career, make your family, and land your place on this earth.
This is how you feel until at some random point, someone points out that your Sword of Damocles is really close there, shaving the hairs off your scalp. Then you snap your eyes up and everything starts to get really crisp and bright and sharp. Holy crap!
Here’s what changes: You’re used to thinking you have lots of time. You can fuck around. Nothing is really urgent. No person is really urgent—you have plenty of time with them all and you can fix the broken parts later.
You don’t even need to be intimate and deep with anyone around you, since that’s something you can do whenever you get around to it.
We live with this weird fog that makes you feel like we can just mess around.
But when you have a Sword of Damocles on you, you start to make a lot of new choices, many of which will startle and confuse you.
First of all, you won’t know you anymore. You get to see a new you. The one who gets life spooled out in short spurts, like thread, and the lengths are short between the tests and clean MRIs.
I could easily never have breast cancer again and live another 30 or 40 years with the effects: lymphedema, osteopenia, premature menopause, numbness, pain.
Or cancer could just pop back in a year and I’m done.
Or I could be like anyone else and get hit by a bus sometime in between it all.
You know what my point is? Life is really a great thing. Nothing should get in the way of consuming it. Not any pain, diagnosis, fear, insecurity, or worry that someone won’t love you back.
Screw that. Just live.
And how did I get to that point of view?
Even if you feel on your way out, or you’re waiting for the grind to end, make it a point to look outside what you’re currently seeing or fearing.
For starters, go talk to someone. Go REALLY talk. And don’t be surprised if the person you talk to is confused by this. They haven’t seen their own Sword yet. They might not know what to do with you and yours. But that’s ok. Someday they’ll see theirs, too.
Most of us aren’t used to being so open with one other, or having someone talk to us so honestly.
We avoid before we open.
All of us fear being rejected, put aside, or made not-important because the people we love are all still off on their fog of immortality.
But try. Try anyway. Call them. See them. Make the time. Our lives press us in to work, to consume, to buy, to get ahead, and to help everyone else. Life today makes us just deal with it until exhaustion. You don’t have to play that way, though.
Once your own Sword comes into focus, this becomes your chance to figure out how you want live under it.
Who do you want to be?
How will you feel?
You aren’t special. Every single living person on Earth is going to get where you are; we all just get there at different points.
You don’t need to suffer under this. You can feel the opportunity lurking in it instead. The opportunity is to get over yourself, get connected to someone, and start doing the one thing you always wanted to do in life.
The Sword is the nudge. It’s the reminder, it’s the necessary scare that gets you past all your own junk and makes you realize that you have precious days to create in.
You don’t get those days back.
Get what I’m saying? Do any of those odd, fun, now-is-not-the-time things that have hovered on the edges of your life. You choose how you feel.
Life ends shortly enough. No need to hustle it along. As the ultimate ex 80s Goth Girl turned Woo Woo-straganza, I know this in my bones.
Seek to wake up to something that makes you feel rich and drunk.
And I don’t mean booze. Find your own drug:
Sunsets off your porch.
Your son’s voice on the phone.
Warm bathwater up to your chin.
Write that damn book.
Stop playing the corporate game.
Get a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Start walking every evening and watch the birds go to bed.
Go sit by the seaside.
Call in sick.
Adopt a new furry friend.
Volunteer at school.
Sketch your new invention.
Dig out an old book you love and re-read it.
Get an aquarium.
Go to a funny movie alone.
Get a vibrator (and use it).
Really seek out and cultivate a best friend.
Find the things that make it all meaningful. They’re often going to be small things —the things we take for granted in all the building and hustling.
This is how you take that Sword, and push it up and away a few feet.
Take that time. Find those delights.
I hope I moved you. Nudged you.