When I finished chemo in 2014 for stage 3b colon cancer that I had been diagnosed with 5 months before, I did a lot of thinking. I’m not unique in this. I think a lot of people get cancer or have a brush with death of some kind, and they decide they need to turn over a new leaf, change how they live, stop doing something, start doing something, repair a broken relationship or begin living more gratefully. You know, don’t sweat the small stuff kind of thinking. My own version of newness was this:
My cancer has a high rate of recurrence. I know, we all want to believe that it’s gone forever, I “beat” it and it won’t ever come back. But I hear every day or so about someone who got cancer once, had a time of remission, and then their cancer came back and killed them. I know, it’s morbid and negative and upsetting to think that way – try living it. But rather than dwell in the fear of recurrence and death, I’ve decided to let that possibility impact my life in a positive way. And I have a specific goal. Since I live with the possibility that cancer could come back and kill me, I think about what is most upsetting about that – what is the most unfair, heart wrenching part about that? There are many things, but the biggest is this: My daughter is only 5. I know she’ll be ok. She has people that love and will take care of her. She’s smart and resilient. But will she remember me? I don’t remember much about being 5. So I think, what is most important for me to leave for her? That I love her, of course. But that’s well established. What I really want is for her to have strong memories of us being together and having fun as a family, but also for her to have memories and evidence of her mother doing difficult, challenging things. I want her to be deeply aware that she comes from a woman who didn’t back down from challenges, that didn’t let fear and doubt stop her. Now, look. I realize that this is a little Lifetime Movie-esque. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic. There is a perfectly good chance I will be alive 40 years from now. But when you can name the thing that is most likely to kill you, you have the right to move about defensively – both in fighting it (nutrition, regular check-ups, exercise) and making some decisions about how your legacy might look, whenever that time comes.
If I die early from cancer it can’t be helped that she will have memories of a sick woman struggling for breath. Memories of watching me get sick and frail will flood her brain for a while – hell, that will probably happen if I make it to 90. That cannot be avoided. But what I can do is show her how to fight now. Show her how to overcome challenges. Show her how you make sacrifices, tape up that ankle and get on with the damned training run. Show her how organized and dedicated and disciplined you have to be to accomplish something big. How you have to have your swimsuit, your goggles, your hair band, your special socks, your phone armband, your sports bra, your bike helmet, your biking gloves, your cold weather stuff, your warm weather stuff. Show her how you have to eat the right things for fuel, how you will get really sick if you don’t hydrate.
I can show her how you wear a wet suit in public even though you look like an oompah loompah. I can show her how you swim in deep, open, choppy water, fighting waves, arms, legs, wind and the alarming tightness of the wet suit. I can show her how you pass the jerk in front of you who kicked you in the head. I can show her how to strip off that nasty, confining wet suit and throw on a t-shirt and get on that bike and ride, and to just keep pedaling, and when the hill becomes too much, how you get off and walk, pushing that heavy less-than-optimal bike, putting one foot in front of the other. Literally saying to yourself “I think I can. Just keep going. I think I can. I know I can.” I can show her how walking your bike isn’t quitting, it’s using all of the tools in your tool box. It’s ditching pride for functionally, dragging yourself and that heavy, heavy bike up that hill so you can mount up and sail down the other side. I can show her how you don’t touch those brakes on that downhill because even though 38 MPH on a winding, gravelly, country road that is not closed to traffic is terrifying, and how you just have to believe that a deer won’t jump out and kill you, or a rabbit for that matter – because you need every bit of momentum. You can’t afford to let fear make you hit those brakes. You have to choose to be brave. And, if you can shake the fear, it kind of makes you believe you can fly. I can show her that when your chain pops off, you don’t cry; you just jump off and fix it. I can show her that when you start that run, your legs feel like dead tree trunks. So you walk slow to get them going. Then faster. And even though it seems impossible, like REALLY impossible…and, ooh, there is a lady holding an iced tea….you want that iced tea. You want to stop and sit down and drink that frosty iced tea and say “eff this race.” And you feel sad because lots of people are done. Like, they not only passed you on the bike, they have also finished their run. They are, like way, way faster than you. And they are eating pizza and drinking iced tea. And you are just starting your run. But there is she. That little sprite of a girl, with her light brown hair messy and her knees dirty. Cheering you on. “Go mommy.” And you cry. Because you know you already did it. You haven’t finished this race yet – you WILL, dammit. But you have shown her. She knows. She knows what this takes for you. She cheers because she knows this is hard. She’s seen you struggle on the bike. She’s seen you chug along slowly, running, just barely. Head down, get it done. She knows. Her 5 year old heart is proud. And you know, that even right now if you get hit by a falling tree, you’ve done it. She will remember you strong and whole and healthy and badass. And so you begin to run. And you just make it happen, even though the tank is empty. There is nothing left but sheer will. You run and you finish.
It meant EVERYTHING to me that my daughter was there to see this. For a while, it seemed like that wasn’t going to work out. It was a busy weekend and it really wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I was devastated. I had a time of panic and frustration and even deep heartache. This was so important to me. And I tried reaching out for help, which I really hate doing, but it was this important. Is there anything worse than asking for help and being rejected? Ugh! What a horrible feeling. This is why people don’t ask for help, because no matter what the reason, how not personal it is…when the stakes in my crazy head are this high…it feels like a rejection of me. And I couldn’t expect anyone to understand why. But then someone did. My wonder friend Mitzi just reached out and fixed it. She said “Cass will sleep here and we will bring her to come and see you.” Not only that, but she took these amazing pictures that I will always for the rest of my life be grateful for. Whether I die when I’m 40 or 70 or 90, please remember me like this. Because this is who I am.
A lot of people got me here – an online triathlon group I’m part of, friends and family, especially my husband for helping me train and others, like my mom for watching Cass when I trained as well as the race organizers and volunteers who cheered me on. It means the world to me.