Who let the dogs out?

The Friday before surgery, we’re all running late. Pete is supposed to be driving Erin to school in Marin, arriving at 8:15 a.m. I’m supposed to take public transit and be at the hospital for pre-surgery blood work etc. by 8 a.m. We are not a family known for punctuality.

Alas, this morning is more chaotic and tardy than usual: Kid’s shoes go AWOL. A lunch controversy erupts. I can’t decide what to wear. Keys cannot be found. Color-blind husband must change his tie to avoid a “fashion don’t.” At 7:40, I ask Pete to make a detour to the hospital on the way to school. No way I have time for public transit at this point. I know this will make them late dropping Erin at school, but I’m afraid to be late for the pre-surgery “Prepare” appointment.

Halfway to the hospital, as we skirt the easternmost edge of Golden Gate Park, I start weeping and incoherently mumbling, “I’m sorry” over and over again.

I’m sorry for being sick.
I’m sorry for making you guys late.
I’m sorry that I’m not working.
I’m sorry that I’m only beginning to realize how much I’ve been a shadow of myself.
I’m sorry that I’m not organizing things the way I usually do.
I’m sorry it’s been more than a week since the sheets were changed.
I’m sorry we’ve been eating so much takeout.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…

Shock, fear, resolution, I’ve run the course with a lot of those well-publicized, emotional hand maidens to cancer. The feelings of guilt and anxiety stayed locked up for the most part. Now, they’re pouring out like mangy dogs let loose from a kennel.

At my last oncology appointment, Tara, the nurse-practitioner, tells me this is normal. “Think of what you’ve been through in the last six months,” she says. “You got diagnosed. You moved. They told you you needed surgery. So you had surgery. Then, you recovered from that and they told you that you needed to have chemo. You had chemo. Now, for the first time since you were diagnosed, you have a little breathing room to process what’s happened to you.”

Feelings come out, apparently, for everyone at this stage of the game. My pack of unruly dogs happens to be heavy on the yapping guilt and anxiety.

I tell Tara, the nurse practitioner, about a post I read recently in The New York Times “Well” blog. In it, journalist Tara Parker-Pope brings together several research studies that show people who are supportive and understanding of others can be remarkably hard on themselves. Um, have we met?

And, the research seems to show, those who score high what they’re calling “self-compassion,” otherwise known as giving yourself a break, have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They also tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggests that self-compassion may even help people eat healthier and lose weight. So giving myself a break may actually improve my health.

Admittedly, this data is far from conclusive—it’s one doctor with one book, and one study from Wake Forest University—but it seems like there’s a nugget of truth in there. I think I’m going to read that blog post again.

Dogs, get thee gone!


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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