Before Cancer and After Diagnosis (BC and AD)

  • 6 February 2014


The most widely used calendar in our world today, the Gregorian calendar, breaks down our timeline from before Christ or the Common Era (BC or BCE) to after Christ (in Latin, Anno Domini, or AD). I know for sure that the dividing line in my life has been advanced cancer, symbolized appropriately by the crab.

Last Sunday a beloved pastor delivered a message to our church putting that divide into divine perspective, but leaving me to ponder my circumstances. Battling colon cancer for four years with 70-plus cycles of chemo behind him, he was able to speak publicly for the first time after a long silence. A voice of experience. What resonated with me most about his message? It was hard for him to remember his life without stage IV cancer.

I can relate.

After almost a year and a half since my stage IV diagnosis, I can truly acknowledge the difficulty of recalling what life was like before a compassionate doctor delivered to me that earth-shattering news. In my former life I had been laid off from my previous job and was seeking employment, with no success. In retrospect, it was a blessing no one wanted to hire me. At the time, however, the rejections stung me worse each time, like a pesky mosquito never buzzing off. Looking back, I can see  I was blind.

But now I see.

Before the diagnosis I lived at the gym, skied almost every year, ran around the neighborhood, biked through parks along bubbling streams, and painted landscapes catching my fancy. I enjoyed a large variety of delicacies, with a hearty appetite for fine dining. I visited my primary care physician and oncologist once a year. No drugs. Travel was to beautiful places of my choosing. I opened jars and picked up items from the floor with the greatest of ease, without  a trapeze. I climbed up and down stairs as if twenty years younger. I even climbed a mountain or two. The only time I got nosebleeds was high up in the bleachers.

And then it hit.

When the rogue lymph node on my chest invaded my body, all hell broke loose. Pain racked most of my body. Medicines couldn’t touch it. When finally I got into a clinical trial and started to gain needed weight after surgeries and grueling hospital stays, I realized I had lost my previous life. Now I am a most picky eater due to a weak and sensitive stomach. Eating requires twice the amount of time to consume less than half the quantity of food. Daily nosebleeds plague me despite moisturizers everywhere. I get carsick without being in a car. I take narcotics and meds for side effects around the clock. I’m lucky if I get out to walk three times a week. Frozen shoulder has returned to haunt me after a long respite. Slumber is most welcome. I visit my oncologist every three weeks and receive nausea-inducing scans every four months. Travel to the hospital for these visits is not optional, and quite wearing. This is my new norm. As more time passes, those memories of a carefree life dissipate into oblivion.

And it’s okay.

Despite all the challenges, I forge ahead. I buy a smartphone adopting the motto of carpe diem. On the days when I feel really well, I write or play an instrument, play games and study the Bible with friends, or take a walk. On other days I veg in front of a flickering screen. A huge blessing is that I don’t mourn anymore for the old life. It was still filled with pain and suffering, just of a different kind. I didn’t appreciate the nuances of life as I do now. And I can relate better to those who struggle with chronic disease or aging, wondering why their bodies don’t respond the way they used to. I could never say, “I know what you mean” or “I know how you feel” to someone, because I can’t get into that person’s body or mind and understand his or her unique pain. But I can offer people a gentle hug and encouraging words, a listening ear, a warm smile and a hand over their hand.

The pastor who gave that message almost a week ago received a standing ovation. And that’s before he even spoke a single word. Witnessing that moving scene gave me extra courage to speak out about metastatic disease, to speak the truth, to avoid sugarcoating a crabby diagnosis. We go on.

Have you had a defining incident in your life that divided it into a before and after?