What Stage IV cancer taught me about navigating Covid-19, systemic racism, and all other pain to come
Letting go of the idea of “normal” and other lies I’ve loved*
Last year I was cracked wide open. I experienced my husband’s diagnosis of Stage IV cancer as a violent tearing up of our lives. I once saw an antelope square off against a wild dog who ripped her intestines out of her body and started gnawing on her insides right in front of her, while she was still standing there, while she was watching. I’ve thought about that antelope every day since learning about the 13 metastatic melanoma tumors inside Burton’s brain.
That night, we went home and promised each other we would stay off the internet, but I lied. I snuck my phone into the bathroom and searched on WebMD where I found words like “historically dismal survival” and “median survival under four months” without being able to absorb them. It was January. Four months would be May. The kids wouldn’t even be out of school.
Now, seventeen months later, I’ve been having the strangest feeling of déjà vu as I grapple with more layers of uncertainty and discomfort. While my experience with my husband’s cancer can’t be compared to a global pandemic or systemic racism, some of my survival skills are coming in handy. This is my love letter to anyone navigating an undoing, whether it’s cancer, divorce, the loss of a job, or other ways of breaking up with that lovely, comforting lie of believing in “normal.”
- Emotional pain has purpose.
As children, physical pain teaches us what to avoid. The stove is hot, stay away. So I was surprised to figure out that pain avoidance is not a successful strategy for an engaged life as an adult. Instead, like weight-lifting, pain-lifting is necessary to build resilience.
This was harder for me to learn because, as a pudgy, unathletic Korean-Canadian, I never lifted weights, or did anything that even approximated physical exertion growing up. Whenever anything was remotely uncomfortable, I just stopped. In fact, when I was pregnant with my first child, I read a book about maternal health that suggested that it’s a good rule of thumb for pregnant women to “quit immediately” if you’re out of breath or experience…