The very first call I made when I left the Urgent Care Center three years ago, after being shown an x-ray of my chest with a shadow on it that was not supposed to be there, was to my wife, Kathy. I was still sitting in the parking lot, dazed, numb, in shock, stunned, (feel free to add whatever other experience you can imagine when one gets the "It might be cancer" news). I’m not even sure what I said or how I said it, but I do know that the response was exactly what I was looking for and why I called; “Whatever happens, we will get through it together,” was the reply, and then, even my ears went numb.
As the days passed, and the test results confirmed that this was not just a technician's fingerprint on my x-ray, (my secret hope) but was a tumor and there was a need for a biopsy, Kathy and I seemed to simultaneously come to the same conclusion for how we were going to go about this. We were not going to expect the worst, we were not going to expect a miracle, we were going to take each thing as it came and utilize our current interests in meditation and mindfulness of the present moment to the maximum degree. (Sure there would be Ativan, red wine, a side-order of denial now and then, but that's for another blog). Oh, and there were prayers, lots of prayers; not of the "Heal me now" variety, but more along the lines of "Give us the strength to handle whatever is heading our way."
When the diagnose of cancer was confirmed (by phone call while I was at work) concerned coworkers drove me home (I find it wise to not drive with numb feet) where I was met by Kathy and gave her the news. While I know that it was in me at the time to have one of those fall down, "Why Me, God, why me?" moments, I was surprised to find those words not crossing my lips. Instead, there were tears and hugs, then silence and Kath's reassurance of, “We can do this.”
At that moment the pacifist die was cast, and we discovered that the mutual feeling between us was that this was not a war against this illness. The focus was on wellness and honoring each day no matter what that brought. Fighting would be left for those times when, jacked up on steroids to prevent nasty side effects from chemotherapy, I would act in the manner of what Kath referred to as "a total ass."
Together we went through open heart surgery to remove the tumor, a piece of lung, my phrenic nerve, and a piece of the pericardium. Using the Caring Bridge website, Kath sent out dispatches on my condition to friends and family. Moving onto chemo and radiation therapies, Kathy stood vigil, ever-ready to fill in whatever cracks in my “Let there me peace in me” armor with a call to meditate, pray, try some yoga, do a quick Qigong exercise, or clear away the negative energy with an American Indian smudge stick ceremony. I am grateful that she had her support system to express her own fears and get release, for her tank always seemed full when it came time to refuel my optimism.
I have to confess that keeping a pacifist perspective on all of this was not easy. Anger was a frequent guest in the Verano household and sometimes it brought a full set of luggage for extended stays. The beauty of having a pacifist covering your back is that she can help dissolve the anger by allowing it to be what it is, energy, without having to feed it.
The day after I ended my last round of chemotherapy, Kathy and I participated in our firstRelay for Life event where cancer survivors and their caregivers are acknowledged for their acts of courage, bravery, and commitment. We were invited by a friend whose father is a prostate cancer survivor and could think of no better way to mark the occasion. It was close to a 100 degrees that day, and I still had the nearly bald head that chemo had given me. The joke between us that day was how ironic it would be to have survived cancer only to succumb to heat stroke while celebrating life.
As Kath and I took our “victory lap” with other survivors and caregivers it was impossible to hold back the tears. Seeing so many others, some of them children, some walking in tribute of those who did not make it through their treatment, was both sorrowful and joy-filled. The symbolism of taking this lap on a hot Virginia afternoon surrounded by friends, family members, and strangers was not lost on either one of us. This journey was clearly not over, we would come back around to face follow-up visits to the oncologist, continued recovery from the effects of treatment, CT scans to determine if the cancer returns, and the nagging thoughts of “Could we ever do this all over again?”
Despite these inescapable truths, it was a day of triumph; not of a victory over cancer, but of the human spirit to find wellness in the face of illness and serenity in the midst of chaos. As the day wore on, and the heat and humidity continued to rise, Kathy and I decided to end the celebration like any good pacifists would; we headed to a local tavern with a trusted and true friend, who had been there for both of us, and toasted to good health, good friends and, of course, peace.