I just finished reading the excellent book Unbroken, a biography of WWII POW Louis Zamperini. It struck me how many details of his ordeal Louis remembered, which made me wonder if that’s normal with traumatic experiences. I remember well my own smaller scale experience, an eventful six weeks in early 2004. I had finally told my doctor of symptoms so mild I had ignored them for over a year. “Let’s get some scans to be on the safe side,” she said. They weren’t normal, nor were the second round routinely ordered to confirm the first. I distinctly remember arguing with the surgeon, telling him I was too busy right now for surgery, couldn’t it wait a couple of months? After all, I was in a new role and it was budget time. (Yes, I realize now how stupid that sounds). I’ll never forget the look on his face when he kindly but sternly said, “You need this done now.”
I tried not to worry in the three weeks until surgery, only half succeeding and wondering what they would find. It wasn’t a long wait. The day after coming home from the hospital, the surgeon called me himself: a rare form of stomach cancer, only 50 cases in the U.S. per year. My husband was running errands when the call came; I hobbled to the computer to research the prognosis. The outlook was bleak: 90% mortality within 5 years, no treatment options upon recurrence. I don’t remember telling my husband. The next three weeks waiting for the visit to the oncologist was difficult, an emotional whirlpool running simultaneously with a challenging physical recovery. I mentally began the letters to my two young children, to be given to them when they grew up. I planned how to ask my sister, who had traveled with me to China, to be the keeper of my daughter’s cultural heritage. We began discussing financial planning options, since I am the family breadwinner and have always managed our finances. The oncologist’s waiting room was memorable: two other couples were there. Though we had never met, we all knew one deeply personal, crucial fact about each other. I said a prayer for them and wondered where their stories would end. I don’t remember the oncologist’s face or his name, only that he got straight to the point: “Good news, we made a mistake! We reran the results, and your tumor was benign.” I fought a ridiculous urge to run from his office, afraid to hear anything else, but I forced myself to stay and ask the necessary questions, including the all-important one: “How do you know which result was correct?”. It appears the answer was the second time, since I passed the 5-year milestone several years back with a quiet, internal celebration. While those 6 weeks were deeply painful (Russ still can’t talk about that time), I now see them as a profound gift. Few people have the privilege of having a death sentence lifted. I got to see how much others cared about me. The experience moved me to becoming a recovering workaholic. I no longer get stressed over many of the silly things at work. I have become a better wife, mother, and friend. I invest energy in others, and my life is infinitely richer for it. I wouldn’t give up those 6 weeks for anything.
“Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson