This story is by Judy M. Baker and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I came home from a celebration of life last Saturday and realized I had been holding my breath, waiting for bad news, a recurrence or a new diagnosis of cancer. Being BRCA 2 Positive and having had cancer once, I am in a high-risk group.
I am four years out from my diagnosis and remission. I am in the best health of my life, yet, there has is a shadow lingering around the edges of my consciousness.
Oner night I gave voice to my thoughts, letting my emotions take the shape of words. If only the words would assist me and tame the fear lurking in my mind like an unidentifiable and elusive lousy smell one wants to avoid but only after categorizing it.
Holding My Breath
On a massive intake of air
The fear beneath my skin escaped
like a lost balloon
spiraling until deflated
The freedom of release
An ache from holding muscles tight,
dissipating, slipping, oozing,
Thoughts, like thin clouds, faintly
written in my mind’s eye
When IT comes again?
Fading into ghostly ephemera
Replaced by a vigorous vitality
I hadn’t realized the weight I was carrying in the form of these persistent, malevolent threads of fear. I wore them like vestments, a cape, wrapping me up in a swaddling cloth as fierce and binding as a steel trap gripping me, squeezing, suffocating each full breath.
At last, my breath broke loose like a tsunami, roiling, rolling, tumbling, churning and bursting upon the sand of my new life.
Explosive energy dashing, radiating out and sweeping back out to be reabsorbed by currents, waiting to fade into the sea, part of the ocean, the universe, the stars, my soul.
I’m still here.
The lyrics from a song erupt with vigor: “I Am Me” rings in my heart, causes it to vibrate with joy. The lyrics are a wild expression of having won the battle to be oneself. It rings out as my new anthem, the theme from the passionate film about P.T. Barnum. It is more than a fictionalized account of his life. It is a celebration of diversity, creative spirits, rising after falling. I cried throughout the film for the people in their story and for my own story of facing cancer in my own, frank way. Barnum may have been “The Greatest Showman.” I am the queen of wellness warriors.
The song surrounds my bones, percolates in my blood, a sweet affirmation of life, health, courage, self.
What cracked me open? When did the switch up swirl into the light?
How had the shadow fear been pulling me under, like a tidal current threatening to sweep my feet out from under me and take me out to sea to drown?
When had the sadness and fear thinned into stringy half thoughts of little consequence?
The date and time of my release from this murky undertow of imagined threats came at a celebration of life for the third of my Teal Sisters who was claimed by cancer in 2018. As her husband read my friend’s words aloud, I felt my diaphragm expand without restraint. My tears were drops of pain leaving my body. Tears flowed, purging the fear and sadness from my body.
I cried and laughed and smiled throughout the celebration of Sherrie’s life.
Being surrounded by my living Teal Sisters brought me peace. Each of us had passed into another reality and emerged after being tested and tempered by the fire of cancer.
I believe that we were made stronger in mind and spirit from our ordeal.
The six months that began with my diagnosis until the end of my chemotherapy felt as if time hovered in an altered space. My real life was on pause as I floated in an amniotic trance. My body was in fight mode against the internal invader that threatened my life. I experienced an intense calm. Like a beam of light through a magnifying glass, I focused on winning my battle. I began by declaring myself a wellness warrior. If I were to banish cancer, I would need all my attention and intention directed on being well. I became a warrior rather than a “victim” of cancer.
In my calm, clarity expanded my sense of purpose and self. I wasted no energy on feeling sorry for what I could not change. My job was and is to live with purpose. Living well each day with joy and happiness, with purpose, with a conviction that I am here for a reason.
My purpose is growing more apparent. I am meant to be a resource, an example, an inspiration for my sisters in teal, front-line fighters of ovarian cancer.
I am far from perfect. I am more curious than courageous. Stubborn, inquisitive, a pain in the butt, a questioner.
I didn’t know how to be mortally ill when I started the journey. Not knowing how to be anything but myself, an outspoken fighter. I was open about my diagnosis, prognosis.
I went from helper to asking for help. I learned about being willing to receive aid from friends, family; community concentrated healing energy around and in me.
After the weirdness, shock, and denial I felt for a brief time, I shifted into creating a plan for action for getting well. I set about gathering people, energy, and information to propel my journey back into health.
I learned a valuable lesson about resistance: fatigue is beautiful in that it is an induced state of relaxation. I gave myself up to the power of the chemicals chomping away at my cancer like Ms. PacMan. I could feel the cells being consumed and transmuted into harmless detritus to be defeated and eliminated from my body.
When treatment ended, I set about to ramp up my physical and mental fitness routines. I was gentle with myself. More deliberate than before.
As I took on more and more of my business and life roles again, I discarded some of the parts and pieces that no longer fit.
Tension started to twine into breath in quiet moments as it pushed out the air in my lungs and squeezed the space where air would love to go, yet could not find room.
I had been holding my breath. Now my breathing is free. My lungs are eager to rise and fall with each new beat of my brave heart.
I am living.
I am breathing.
I am me, forged from fear and friendship into a beacon of hope and resilience. Redeemed.