From the day my doctor said yes, they “did find cancer,” everything has been different. First came a five-hour surgery to remove a walnut-size tumor from a gland next to my right ear. A month later came the cancer patient’s obligatory ritual: six weeks of five-days-a-week radiation sessions, plus chemotherapy.
I was lucky to have a devoted husband, family and clan of friends supporting me through that first round of treatment, but sometimes I hit bottom anyway. Coming home from the infusion center one evening in the winter of 2014 after an all- day chemo cocktail, I was numb, exhausted … despairing. I faced an overwhelming new truth: at age 57, I had become a forever cancer patient, destined to exist on the razor’s edge between life and death as dictated by radiologists, then suffer a lot, then end.
The drive home was marked by torrential rain and my own sobbing. My husband wasn’t sure whether to try to cheer me up or allow me to marinate in my grief. We finally arrived at our destination, walked in the front door and … voila! … the dark clouds parted. Our secret weapon had been deployed.
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Scout circled, jumped, barked and spun as we entered, overwhelmed as always that we’d managed to find our way home to her once again. Wow! My favorite people have returned! A Shepherdmix rescue we had adopted from the SPCA just before cancer struck, she unexpectedly became our inoculation against the killer cells attempting to proliferate in my body. Scout’s exuberance in the moment helped Dave and I go right where we most needed to be: in the exact present with her, thankful for what we had instead of mourning what we’d lost.
Somehow, she wrenched us out of the fear that naturally accompanies cancer and landed us back in the real world of home and love and Now! Now! Now!
My brother, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, had rules for dealing with his disease.
Thanks in part to a dog, I have come to understand and embrace his Rule No. 10: “Contemplating courage for the rest of my life is overwhelming, but courage for today is possible.”
My sister-in-law suggested another more practical rule to obey while undergoing cancer treatment, one that Scout has helped enforce. No matter how bad things get, she suggested, stick to a daily routine, i.e., maintain some semblance of normalcy amidst the maelstrom. Dogs make complying with this one a snap. Scout is bossy! The ultimate creature of habit, she exerts boundless energy keeping us on a schedule and dictating when we rise, walk, feed her, work, cook, feed her again … you get the point. If we fail to adhere to her timetable, there is a joyous hell to pay.
As anyone who has ever loved a dog knows for sure, their antics can be hilarious. Scout’s intensity is an invitation to laughter, a routing of sadness. Even during the darker days of treatment, she managed to crack us up with her behavior: the long, loud morning yawns; the squirrel crazies; the back-ways moonwalks. When we go driving, Scout runs a speed track in the backseat—left window to right, then back again, over and over and over—to the delight of those in cars behind us. A startlingly verbal dog, Scout’s range of high-to-low intonations even beats out Dory, the infamous blue tang who croons at that whale in Finding Nemo.
A Buddhist friend who died of cancer a few years back taught me his Three Essential Verbs: accept, include, return. Scout, one ear bent quizzically flap-ward, as if constantly considering a question with no answer, has become my late friend’s lobbyist for those words, which are all about intention and attention.
Accept what I can and can’t do about my disease and its existential realities. Include family members, friends and others on the journey, since there are major lessons to be learned along the way; for example, it turns out that the way to best face death is indistinguishable from the way to best live life. Return as often as I can to the present and the essential truth about who I am and how fortunate I am to be alive and loved.
It’s been more than four years since that first round of treatment, three since cancer went metastatic in my body. I’ve stayed active; continued to write; and have already outlived a terminal prognosis by two years, thanks to clinical trials and breakthroughs in immunotherapy. The cancer seems now to be in a somewhat dormant stage. I count my blessings every day.
But when my husband and I get blue anyway about events in the larger world or setbacks in our own personal sphere, Scout is always there to remind us to remain in the moment. And each time we return home, there she is, prancing down the driveway to say hello, barking and spinning, overjoyed to share even just a little more time with us. My people have returned! Life is beautiful! Now! Now! Now!