For me, uncertainty was always a dirty word. Even just the way it rolled off my tongue felt sticky and uncomfortable. For 30 years, I took pride in my discipline and work ethic when it came to managing every single variable of my life – from my career, to dating, to weekends away. I was in control and I thought I was happy.
Then in October of 2009, everything changed. I was at a conference networking with Project Managers in the technology industry when I got a phone call: triple negative breast cancer, grade 3 tumor, surgery immediately, and chemotherapy to follow. Uncertainty crashed over me like a tidal wave and control became a distant illusion. Like a swimmer caught in an undertow, I tumbled through an unfamiliar ocean, gasping for breath, constantly disoriented. It was like I could see the outline of my old life on the shore – the life where I was a 30-year-old successful recruitment professional. Where I was excited to meet a man, settle down, and have a family because I’d wanted to be a mother since my parents brought my baby brother home from the hospital when I was 9. The life where I didn’t think about death, or losing my hair, or what pieces of me might survive the wreckage of cancer.
But instead of being able to swim back to shore, I tumbled into a nightmare where I was a prisoner of my body and a disease I couldn’t control.
One of the defining experiences during those dark months started after my first round of chemotherapy. The nausea, listlessness and fatigue all seemed normal but soon a rising fever had me in the hospital. I remember the fluorescent lights, the buzz of people beyond the curtain, the pounding of my fevered teeth against each other, my feeble cries for more blankets, the sluggish clock, and the seemingly endless needles coming to vacuum out more of my blood. I spent nearly 24 hours in emergency on a bed so hard that the floor looked appealing. In the middle of the night, my gurney wound through an endless stream of tunnels, hallways, and elevators and I was sealed in the most silent room I had ever experienced. An isolation room. I learned later I had a fever of 103* and a white blood cell count of almost zero.
The next morning, I woke to the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. Brown. Steeped in concern. The rest of her face was obscured by a mask – her scrubs covered by a protective gown, and her hands encased in gloves. As she took my vitals, I noticed the strands of hair that had broken free from my scalp and littered the sheets of my hospital bed. I bit back tears.
“Are you ok?” she asked
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry – I whispered to myself. I hated showing emotion, but I couldn’t contain the hot rivers of loneliness and fear that trailed down my cheeks to gather in my clavicle.
She handed me a Kleenex as she rested a gloved hand on my shoulder and encouraged me to try to drink the water on my tray, but between the damage chemotherapy had inflicted on my tastebuds, the fever that had me too shaky to shuffle to the bathroom without help, and the intense antibiotics pumping through my veins, I didn’t want to drink, or move, or talk. I wanted to disappear.
For the next four days, different sets of eyes would come and go – some belonging to the parade of day or night nurses who would check my vitals, hang new IV bags, or take me for scans. Some belonging to the friends who would stop by for a visit – always on their way somewhere else. I was a to-do checked off the list of their busy lives. They loved me and I was grateful to see them. But, I hated that they could leave and I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave my life.
As I lay there – shaky with fever – my mind coursed with questions…
Why me? What if I never feel better? What if I die?
As the fever dissipated, I was released – from the prison of the hospital back to the sentencing of more chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery. I forget how to look to the future. I forgot how to dream.
As my hair started to grow back and the scars began to fade, the questions from well-meaning friends and family came at me hard and fast…
“Are you excited to go back to work?” They would ask. Or “Hey – when do you think you’ll start dating again?”
I would pretend to engage. Even nod and smile at the right time, but I was still out in that ocean – tossed between my old life and my current reality. Tumbling into the darkness of depression.
When I was alone – I wrestled with even bigger questions.
What if I don’t want to go back to my old job? Who will love this broken version of me? Why hasn’t my life turned out the way I wanted it to?
I sat in my apartment, sifting through the wreckage and drifting through feelings of darkness, loneliness, and anger. For weeks, I grieved the loss of my life as I had known it. And, then one day, I found myself sitting in a patch of sunlight on my living room floor and I suddenly felt lighter and more at peace than I had in a long time. Perhaps I had finally crossed the threshold from grief back into life.
One of the gifts given to me during that period was Rainer Rilke’s, Letters To A Young Poet. A book that I may not have taken the time to read during my busy pre-cancer life, but one I would turn to when I was seeking company and comfort during the long and lonely days of recovery. That afternoon, it was reading this passage that helped me see uncertainty in a whole new light:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I read that passage so many times that it became an internal mantra. Now, perhaps the line that resonates the most with me is this one.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you wouldn’t be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.
If you had told me that afternoon that I was about to make a decision to travel to South Africa and volunteer for six weeks in an underfunded daycare, I would not have believed you. I could not have imagined that my time taking care of 2-3 year olds would heal me from cancer in ways I could never articulate. Or that meeting families devastated by HIV or women who struggled to feed and clothe their children would remind me that we all have different struggles – but to struggle is part of the human experience. I definitely didn’t see myself as any kind of white savior. I simply appreciated the opportunity to forge connections and to learn what it meant to hold space for both joy and struggle. Back then, I could not have foreseen returning home and making the choice to leave my career, give notice on my apartment, and live with no fixed address for more than six years so I could create A Fresh Chapter – an organization dedicated to helping other people redefine what is possible after cancer.
Had I known all of the uncertainty or the highs and lows that lay ahead, I would never have gotten off the floor.
But, as I sat there thinking about living the questions, I started to wonder if I needed to ask myself different questions.
Instead of “why me?” “why did I get cancer?” “why am I not married with kids yet?” – what if I could start from that moment and ask myself – what is possible for me now?
Whether it’s cancer or some other life event that knocked you sideways, perhaps, you are grappling with how to pick up the pieces of your life. What if – instead of putting pressure on yourself to have the answers – you could instead think about asking yourself new questions? What might be possible for you now?