One step at a time

Newly diagnosed cancer patients are encouraged to live day to day, to take one step at a time and to avoid worrying about what the future might hold. From the moment I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and heard these words of wisdom from well-wishers, I thought this advice was a load of . . .

I still do, really. As an American, it’s hard to imagine a life without goals. Our national slogan, the pitch that keeps the world thinking (maybe?) that we’ve got it all, is fairly straightforward:  cast a dream, devise a plan, and watch everything fall into place (assuming, of course, that you’re willing to put in the hard work to make the dream a reality).

The thing is that no matter how much effort a survivor puts into her “recovery”–struggling through the treatments, keeping doctors’ appointments, maintaining an exercise regimen and evaluating food choices–the outcome might not be as hoped. The very language of cancer in Western society, what Susan Sontag refers to as one massive battle or war metaphor, champions “winners” of the “fight” and laments those who “give in” to the dreaded disease.

One lesson Edwina has modeled for me is the necessity of taking on pain and worry whenever and wherever they occur, whether we want to or not. Years on the street taught Edwina that the only resources she had to watch over were those right in front of her at that very moment: something to eat or a ride in a heated car on a cold Birmingham day. Tomorrow’s food or opportunity to warm her frozen toes had to wait until, well, tomorrow.

I think my friend’s default position, always at the ready in survivor-mode, has served her well in the land of cancer. I lose sleep when I’m waiting for the results of an MRI or other diagnostic test, while Edwina leaves her worries at Cooper Green County Hospital and doesn’t pick them up again until she returns for an update. She knows there’s information coming and that the information might change her prognosis or everyday ability to get around, but she has other living, other surviving, to do in the meantime.  From our chats, I know that while she hopes for good news and one day an end to her pain, the only thing she knows for sure is that she has today, the good and the bad.

Edwina’s one smart cookie.



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