As I’ve mentioned before, I climb rocks. Well, I *aspire* to climb rocks (right now, I sort of scramble over outdoor walls in fear), but in the gym I Seem To Actually Climb. For those of you who’ve climbed before (and who I can gently brag to), I’m currently pretty solid on 5.9s and working on low 5.10s. Not terribly impressive, but I’ve only been climbing since January and my goal was to start working on 5.10s at the end of the summer, so I think I’m doing alright.
I mention climbing because it gives me the opportunity to think about treatment in a more manageable way. I’ve been struggling with what words to apply to my treatment cycle this time because stage iv treatment is so unique. When I was originally diagnosed as stage iii back in October of 2010, it was almost easy to conceptualize of my treatment cycle because it was bounded. I could kick cancer’s ass because I could see the end of treatment. Now, whenever someone says to me “you’re going to kick cancer’s ass,” my immediate reaction is “well… not really.” Put simply, stage iii you can get rid of; stage iv you hold at bay.
So how does climbing help me think about this? Well, unbounded treatment is really scary when I think about it in the abstract. I’ve referenced this before, in a slightly different way: thinking about time in chunks that are too big starts to feel depressing pretty quick. The same thing happens when I think about my treatment cycles. In the largest sense, I’ll probably be on treatment forever, on and off chemo. My hair probably won’t ever be as long as it is right now. I’ll never have all of my energy back.
In the weeks leading up to my first treatment (taxol/herceptin/pertuzumab, for those of you who care), I kept thinking “this is the last time I’ll probably ever feel totally healthy.” And that scared me. It seemed horrifically unfair that I was suddenly staring down a future that looked so different and, to be blunt, so bleak. But I could only maintain that kind of thinking for so long — eventually, something had to give.
And that’s where climbing comes in.
When I was starting out, climbing 5.10s seemed literally impossible. I have this tendency to believe I never improve at anything — that however I start out at something is how it will always be. It stems from a long standing way of thinking I cling to: that believing that things will never get better is better than expecting them to improve, which could ultimately lead to disappointment. In a lot of ways, this is how I still think (and probably will always think), but this kind of thinking also depends on looking at the long term — the very long term.
Success is hard to measure in the short term, which is why this kind of thinking is not only attractive but easy to fall into and stay stuck in. The work I’m accustomed to — academic work and dressage — takes years to develop. A good dressage horse takes 5, 6 years to train; a good book takes 1 or 2 years of hard writing after research (and that’s on my timeline, which is speculative at best). But climbing is different. I don’t know if this is because it suits me or because, if you work hard, you can improve quickly. But by late January I was feeling out 5.8s; I did my first 5.9 sometime in late February. By mid April I was pretty solid on 5.9s and now I’m testing 5.10s. This improvement moves quicker than I’m accustomed to. And that change of pace has been slowly teaching me to rethink my sense of scope.
Sure, I may be in and out of treatment forever; in fact, I most likely will be. Sure, that forever isn’t as long as it should be. But I don’t have to think about it in those terms. I can think about it in the short term rhetoric my oncologist and I talk about during our meetings: taxol for three months. Then a scan. Then: we’ll see. The “we’ll see” part of that equation can be scary, but it also can be liberating. It frees me from having to imagine the long term — which, as I’ve pointed out before, is most likely pretty bleak. In the long term, I won’t kick cancer’s ass; it will kick mine. The short term, on the other hand, looks okay. I’ll be tired, but I’ll be working on my dissertation, riding, climbing; I’ll be here.
I’ll be here.
These are words — or versions of words —
Optimistic Realistic Cheerful Boyfriend says to me when I’m having a particularly bad day. “You’re still here.” And that’s what climbing is like too. A couple weeks ago, we were out at Farley ledges in western Mass, near my dear alma mater. It was my first time climbing (read: scrambling) outside. I was having a rough day anyway — it was only a week or so after my diagnosis — and climbing poorly was not helping my confidence. I was horrified and not very good. I went from climbing 5.9s at the gym to barely making it over 5.6s and 7s on the rock (this is before I was informed that outdoor ratings are different than indoor). Though my feet always felt solid, I had nothing to wrap my hands around. I kept finding myself thinking “I’ll never improve at this; I’ll never get better.”
Then I got to the top of my second route. At the top of the first one, I immediately lowered, horrified of being as exposed as I was. But at the top of the second, I looked back over my shoulder at the valley lit with light below. And what struck me was not the characteristic peacefulness of this scene, but clarity: I was at the top of a silent route, staring over my shoulder, 60 feet in the air. That’s where I was right at that moment. My focus shifted, became more narrow and more precise. I was improving, and at a rate I could recognize. I was improving in the present.
The future didn’t seem less important, as it’s not less important now. But I’m beginning to learn that the present offers us as many opportunities for hope and joy as the future does. And, paradoxically, that’s why I will not kick cancer’s ass. The future is too big for this: in fact, in the future, cancer will win. But right now — in these next three months, as I show up every week in the hospital, in every moment of these next three months, I’ll do my own little steps of ass kicking. I’ll slowly gain enough ground to get to tomorrow. I will get to tomorrow.
Long term, metastatic cancer treatment is not a marathon. A marathon indicates an end point, and I hate thinking about long term and endings. Long term treatment is a siege: it’s long term and long lasting, sure, but you need to keep your eyes on the battle at hand because the current battle is all that is certain. Otherwise you forget that you may never win. After all, it’s not about winning, it’s how you play the game.
And I play this game well. I know this game.
Game on, cancer.