I had the post-lumpectomy follow-up with my surgeon this morning. He gave me a clean bill of health, told me that my papilloma was fibrocystic changes, and assured me that not only was it not cancerous, but that it doesn’t increase my risk for breast cancer in the future.
“Just make sure you’re religious about getting your annual mammogram,” he said. As I’m sure you could tell from my last blog post, he’s preaching to the choir there.
The first thing he said, though, when he walked into the exam room was, “So, do you feel better now that it’s all over?” He knew how scared I’d been, not just about the surgery or the possibility of breast cancer, but about going under general anesthesia.
Do I feel better? Yes, I do.
It’s weird, but in a way I’m glad all this happened. Not that having a cancer scare is fun, but it’s amazing how it changes your perspective, your attitude toward life and the people around you.
Most people are surprised when they find out I write horror and dark fantasy fiction. “But you’re so sweet!” they say. “You look too nice to write horror.”
But horror isn’t about gore or violence or torture. It’s about fear. And fear is something I understand. I’ve been afraid of so many things for so much of my life. Things everyone’s afraid of, like spiders, heights, and flying. Things most people aren’t afraid of, like crossing bridges, going to the doctor, or getting lost at sea. Things most people don’t even think about, like going to sleep. Riptides. My house burning down. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Going through tunnels. Going off a cliff in the mountains. The water heater exploding during the night (it’s directly under our bedroom, directly under our bed).
For years I’ve mined that fear for stories. And I’ve written some great stories because of it, because my mind naturally goes to the worst, most terrifying thing that could happen.
But at the same time I’ve passed on doing a lot of things I probably would have enjoyed, simply because I was afraid. I’m not what you’d call a risk-taker. I love life — love being alive — too much to risk losing a second of it. “Is this really worth not being here tomorrow?” I’d ask myself. And the answer was always no.
When the doctors found the microcalcifications during my mammogram and started saying words like “biopsy”, “abnormal papilloma”, and “lumpectomy”, I thought of the song “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw.
A lot of the first verse mirrored my own situation. I’m in my early forties. Since my family tends to live — and be very active — well into their eighties, by all rights I should have a good forty or fifty years ahead of me. And when I got the mammogram results, you’d better believe that stopped me on a dime, had me thinking about the surgery, about what I’d do if it was, in fact, cancer and had spread too far.
I thought about what Isaac Asimov said when asked what he’d do if he only had six months to live. “Type faster.”
And I thought about a small, framed poster my friend Sharon had on her wall when I first met her that said one of the keys to beating cancer was to make plans for things you wanted to do in a year, two years, five years — and believe you’ll be there to do them.
My wedding anniversary was three days before my lumpectomy. Chad and I had planned a trip to Southport, NC, that weekend to celebrate. When I asked the doctors about it, they all said, “Go! Take the trip. Enjoy yourself. Don’t even think about the surgery while you’re there.”
I wanted to cancel the trip, to curl up in a corner and hide. But I kept thinking about that Tim McGraw song, about Asimov’s attitude toward death, and about that poster on Sharon’s wall. “I should do this,” I told myself. “Because who knows if I’ll get another chance.”
Even though everything turned out fine, that’s been my attitude since then. I should do things now, because who knows if I’ll get another chance. I don’t know what happens after we die. I don’t know if we have any consciousness at all. But I know that up until the moment I go, I want to experience as many things as I can. If there is an afterlife, I want a million memories to keep me company while I’m there.
Now, I’m not going to go skydiving or Rocky Mountain climbing. Not because I’m scared, but because I have no interest in falling several thousand feet through the air, with or without a parachute. And I’m simply too damned lazy to put in the hard work and effort to climb a mountain (although I’d love to go indoor rock wall climbing). But I might ride a mechanical bull sometime, because that sounds fun. Or walk across the bridge at Grandfather Mountain. Or even fly in a plane again.
I’d like to learn to surf and play the ukelele and the saxophone. I want to learn to drive race cars, and make my own paper, and I want to travel everywhere.
And I want to write. More than ever before, I want to write. In fact, that’s the first thing I said when I woke up after surgery. “I want to write.” The nurses kept offering me crackers and water and painkillers, but all I really wanted was pen and paper. (My nurses were awesome, by the way. The whole surgical team was.)
The day before my surgery, about five minutes after we left the hotel on our way back from Southport, Chad and I saw a bunch of stuff scattered across the road. At first I thought it was a bag of garbage that had fallen off a truck and gotten strewn about by traffic. Then I saw the car, flipped over on its windshield, the tires still spinning.
Chad pulled over, and as we ran across the road to help I remember thinking, “There’s no way anyone could survive that. It’s not just on the roof — it’s on the windshield. I don’t want to see a dead body. Not the day before I go in for surgery.”
By the time we got there, both people in the car had made it out on their own. The passenger was holding the driver close, telling her over and over, “You’re alright. You’re alright.”
The only injury either of them had was the cut the driver had gotten on her knee, probably while crawling out of the car.
I’m still awed thinking about that accident, remembering how destroyed that car looked and yet how they both walked away. If it taught me anything, it was to stop looking at the world and seeing all the ways I could die. To start looking at it and seeing all the ways I could live instead.
I don’t know how long this new attitude of mine will last. This isn’t the first time I’ve had an epiphany, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I’ll hold onto this newfound bravery as long as I can, live as many new experiences as I can, and, to paraphrase Asimov, write faster.
For the curious, the car was a Chrysler Sebring. And you damn well better believe I’m looking at one of those when I decide to buy a new car!