One thing I have learned on this little journey of life is that with every event that changes the course, there does come a point where that change becomes normalized.
There is the first response of shock, elation, fear, joy, or one of a myriad of emotions, that over time melds into being normal like it was just always this way. Be it enfolding a new person as a love interest, or finding out that cancer may be back. I figure it is a survival mechanism, as to ride those highs or lows too long would diminish the intensity be it pleasurable or trying. As much as I hate sitting in times of difficulty, I have come to see them as an opportunity to check in and take stock. Have I gone on auto-pilot? Am I living authentically or masking to cope? If all of this were to end sooner than I would like, what am I doing with my time left? How am I tending to my relationships? Why am I investing my time where I am and with whom? Am I dancing as much as I would like? Am I singing as much as would like? Am I leaning into my dreams? Am I staying safe and hiding so as not to get hurt again? Do I sit and look at the trees? When is the last time I hugged my kid? Have I been present enough with the time I have left with my parents? Am I loving myself and this body I am in?
Conversely, when great joy crosses my path I am so aware that the intensity of that high is fleeting. I try to be mindful to acknowledge the temporary nature of this immense high, then to be present enough, metaphorically speaking, to bottle up the memory to save for later. These are the elixirs for the times in life that bring me to my knees in a puddle of my own tears. It’t the balancing act of being human.
As humans, we are capable of normalizing some very fucked up shit as well as normalizing a fortunate charmed existence. There is always something for everyone to struggle with, it just varies in degrees and perspective. Not good, not bad, just is.
I didn’t realize how far I had come out of what I call “the cancer brain” until my recent scare, 10 days ago, when my routine cancer scan showed something unidentified and new in my sigmoid colon. I saw the results in my patient portal after I saw that the hospital called. The voicemail was delayed in sending me the notification that a message was sent. Seeing the missed call, I lay on my bed and logged into my portal to see that a small shadow was found on my sigmoid colon. A bloom of stress hormones flooded my body. It was electric, like a soft shock, from my eyeballs to my toes. Then came the thought “I don’t know who to call”. I rationally know that I have a HUGE loving community and family that would field my call but I didn’t have “a” person to call. The voice of my body started to revolt at the idea of doing chemo again. It was screaming at me “NO NO NO NO NO!”. Then the tailspin began. Everything became immediate and loud. Almost trying to will the possibility away “I DON’T WANT TO HAVE CANCER AGAIN!” “I DON’T WANT TO DO CHEMO!” “I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”.
I needed a human body present with me and so I texted my housemate if they would come downstairs. They had no clue what they were walking into. After a moment of adjusting to the portal I had just unknowingly drug them into with me, they sat on the floor of my kitchen with me as I lost my shit. She even made me laugh at one point as it is her superpower. For that moment I am very grateful.
That evening I was scheduled to speak at the University of Michigan to about 100 pre-med students about my work as a doula. I could have canceled but that is not my way. Probably from raising kids for 20 years through many trials where as a mom I needed to buck up and keep going. It ended up being just the thing I needed to remind me that today, I am alive. I am very good at what I do, which is storytelling. Especially when I am speaking about something I am knowledgeable about.
Me being me, I did preface the hour-long talk with a check-in. I let the room full of vibrant 20-somethings in front of me know that I have been on a cancer journey since 2018 and that evening I got the news that something was found on my recent cancer CT scan. I also let them know that I was sharing that because if at any point I lost track of what I was talking about or got emotional, that was what was happening under the surface. After my check-in, I rolled right into “Hi, my name is Kate Stroud…”. I am not going to be modest, I was on fire. It was probably one of my favorite presentations to date. I had them interested, asking great questions and even laughing at many points. Many of them came up after to thank me for my presentation and to ask more questions.
I took that energy into the following weekend where I taught a 16-hour DONA Birth Doula workshop to 26 folks via Zoom, with my sister-friend Amanda at my side helping me as she has done in the past. We had yet another weekend of awesomeness. At the end of the workshop, I was tired and filled with gratitude. In, literally, the last moments of the training I broke down in tears as someone was expressing gratitude for the weekend. Only Amanda knew the full breadth of the source of those tears. The group was kind and loving as we all signed off to go our separate ways with my door open for them to round back to me at any time if they need. What Amanda knew was that the workshop was the last distraction before I had to deal with what was happening in my body. After we all hopped off the Zoom call, Amanda texted simply and perfectly “I love you. It’s truely gonna be alright.”
Whether I am actively living with, healing from, or existing after cancer, I have a membership to a club that only has one way to join. The level and duration of hazing are different for every member. The awareness of this membership for me ebbs and flows as time passes, routine check-ups happen, and aches and pains alert me to the normal aging process, all with an undercurrent of – “Is the cancer going to come back?”. I do know now that the acute nature of that question dims as more time passes without incident. I also know how quickly I can be drawn back into the highjacking of a large portion of my brain to fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what I cannot control.
This is where I turn to the balancing act of living. With the acute nature of the fear, simultaneously comes an acute awareness of being alive. I turn to the woods and lay on the leaf-strewn ground watching the leaves fall all around me. I dance in my kitchen with abandon. I sing at the top of my lungs driving in my car. I watch the movie Fried Green Tomatoes twice in 24 hours. I think of the beautiful people I have in my life and those I am excited to meet.
No one said living was going to be easy. Today I am alive. I don’t know when my surgery will be to fix my abdominal issue, as I need to be cleared for surgery. I don’t know what procedures or “answers” lie ahead of me. I met with my oncologist on Wednesday. I got in for a PET scan on Thursday. I did get a note that the scan did not give us any more information and we will be meeting this coming week to discuss the steps forward.
What I DO know is that outside of this hiccup my kids and I are crushing life. I know I get to hug my daughter upon her return from her amazing trip overseas in 9 DAYS! I know I will be spending some amazing time with friends this holiday season. I know I had a great night last night for my dear friend’s 50th birthday and we decided to go to the Necto to dance our butts off (we lasted exactly 50 minutes – nothing makes one feel old like going to a nightclub. LOL). I know I have today and I know I am very loved.
Feel it all. It’s all a fucking balancing act.
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