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Cancer's Subtle Gifts

It started in the middle of the night when we heard unfamiliar tapping on the roof.

“Rain?” my husband said, mystified. “Maybe I should make sure the windows are up in the car.” He put flip flops on his bare feet and headed outside while I listened to the patter.

We moved from our home in Northern California, where it gets cold and wet in winter, to the desert, where it’s warm and sunny 350 days a year (or so the internet says).

Yesterday’s drizzle turned into a shower, and it continued all night and all day, the most water this area has had in almost a year. But the best part will happen in a week, when this arid landscape will explode into bloom.

I can’t wait to hike at Joshua Tree National Park and the great walking trails even closer to home. Desert plants I’ve never noticed will delight the world with remarkable blooms that pop with rare, short-lived bursts of color and new other-worldly fragrances will drift into the air.

One shrub is called creosote, a spiny plant with tiny green leaves. After a rain, miniature flowers speckle it’s branches, blossoms so small they’re almost indistinguishable. But their fragrance hovers like an invisible cloud of perfume, sweet and exotic like jasmine, but spicy and citrus-y like Christmas, a smell so unusual it hangs in your memory and defines a moment.

That fragrance, like those elusive desert blooms, is beautiful and fleeting. Walk too fast and you’ll miss it, but if you take the time and effort to experience this spectacle of nature, the desert after a storm is a treat like no other.

For me, this momentarily drenched, sandy landscape is like my whole life has been since cancer treatment.

Shortly after my diagnosis, an oncologist told me that unless I got immediate medical intervention, I’d be dead in three months. The kind of breast cancer I have, triple negative, is aggressive, and by the time it was discovered, it had already spread to my lymph nodes and sternum. The nation’s healthcare law had just changed, and it rendered my family’s insurance invalid. By the time I got through all the red tape and got into treatment, the doctor said it would be too late for me.

What a bleak day that was. We needed a desert rain.

Lucky for me, my husband is a rainmaker. An extraordinarily persistent guy, his combination of entrepreneurial skills and bullheaded determination simply wouldn’t take that answer. Through a remarkable series of events, I ended up receiving care at both Stanford Medical Center and University of California, San Francisco, two of the world’s most renowned hospitals for cancer patients like me.

After nearly a year of treatment, countless doctor visits, a few ER overnights, one surgery and what sometimes felt like the entire population of California copping a feel under my shirt, I gradually got my life back. And I noticed that the life I got back is better than my old one in many ways. It’s gentler, funnier, less stressful, and more colorful.

Ordinary experiences have become meaningful and filled with beauty. Sometimes at the dinner table, although I’m sure they don’t notice, I pause to soak in the sweetness of my little family, Gary, Lauren and me, laughing about something stupid that happened to one of us during the day.

From my seat, I see raw two-by-fours and pink insulation, but when I notice that my husband finally installed a light in our closet, I swell with gratitude. We left our small northern California town shortly after my recovery in search of better healthcare options, upgraded schools, and more opportunities. Our new house, a fixer, is less grand than the one we left behind, but daily I feel it transitioning into home. We’ve done these projects before, but not after cancer, not with a teenager and not in the full bloom of middle-age. Our timeline has been slower than we expected.

But in my recovery, I’ve noticed that I’m more patient than I used to be. I’m better aware that a line at a grocery store is a chance to exercise that patience or to extend a kind word to someone who looks like they need it.

I know now the importance of carving out time and resources for life’s priorities, even in the middle of rehabbing a house, and I no longer assume I can put them off to another day. At our old house, we had a whole room dedicated to making art. Here, in our smaller, messier home, I clear off the kitchen table and make more art than ever.

It’s even easier now to host little parties because I realize that things don’t have to be perfect, that imperfections are often what make friends feel more comfortable and evenings more memorable. Life is funny that way.

William Butler Yeats, the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet, wrote “the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” One of cancer’s subtle gifts to me is that it did, indeed, sharpen my senses, and I revel in the magic that I now see is everywhere.

This piece was published first at

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