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Cancer’s Other What If’s

Cancer brings a cycle of unwanted questions. Scary questions. Questions no one wants to ask. What if they can’t catch it? What if it spreads? What if it comes back? What if I die? What if I have to leave the people I love behind? Will I break my little girl’s heart? Last week, I was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, an issue common enough, especially for women, that it shouldn’t be cause for alarm. But with cancer looming in my background, frightening questions started fogging up my brain. My doctor said my urine tested positive for a bacteria so rare that medical professionals aren’t even sure it responds to antibiotics. And where it could have come from is anyone’s guess. I took the antibiotics they gave me and noticed immediately its peculiar side effect: sore tendons. So, while I limped around this week, my what-ifs have been particularly haunting. Every painful step I take reminds me that my health is precarious, that maybe my time is running out. And although my husband hasn’t admitted to it, I know those insecurities have been more persistent this week for him, too. Part of the challenge of living with cancer is coming to terms with one of life’s great mysteries. We all know we’re going to die, but we don’t know when. And I don’t want that big question, in all of its various disguises, to cloud the time I have left. So, as my urine burned, my tendons ached, and my mind swirled, I decided I needed to reframe my questions. What if, along with the angst cancer brings, it delivers a gift, too. Not just for me, but for everyone who loves me, for everyone witnessing my journey and taking part in their own way? What if cancer motivates me to value quality time over quantity time, and if only for an instant, I discover I can taste eternity in a single precious moment? What if cancer teaches me not to say later, but instead to say now and dares me to take more chances? What if it prompts questions that inspire wisdom and lays bare a path to forgiveness and letting go, paths that help me reunite families and patch up meaningless squabbles. What if it teaches me to sometimes say no, and other times to say yes? What if my experience with cancer helps me embolden one person to quit a dreaded job and start something new, exciting, and beautiful? What if that person finds their calling and uses it to change the world? What if it inspires art and the fearlessness to share it? What if cancer creates space for joy, love, hope, and faith?

What if cancer reveals life at its core and peels it back to the sweet kernel of truth and perfection that resides within every human being? In The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank wrote, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” What if the wisdom of a 14-year-old — a girl the same age as my beautiful daughter — shows me what is truly possible, even in a situation as bleak as a cancer diagnosis. We all have what-ifs. And some of them are beautiful.

This post is dedicated to Patty and to Kathleen, two fighters in Northern California who are inspiring the world with their grace, beauty and strength.

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