“My Voice” by Erika Hanson Brown

“Life Elevated”

"Erika Hanson Brown" - 'Survivor'

It’s been 7 years, 8 months, and 2 days since the Labor Day Weekend in 2002 since I awaited word from my newly-met surgeon with confirmation that we had an operating room assigned for my upcoming surgery.  This life-saving surgery would remove – ultimately – a foot or more of my tumor-burdened colon and also my suspicious-looking spleen.

For approximately two years prior to that memorable weekend, I had lived my life pretty much as usual – except for the fact that I was progressively getting sicker and sicker and was less and less able to live my life.

My first sense that something was wrong came to me the summer of 2000.  I can remember having that thought, and then telling myself that since I couldn’t possibly articulate the feeling correctly, that I would just “keep on going” and doing my work. Denial – that’s what that was!!  It felt, as I can say today, as if I’d developed a “shadow” self, but my inner decision was that I wasn’t going to tell anyone about this whispery and elusive, extra persona.

The following summer I realized that at times I felt a little sharp jab on the right side of my lower abdomen.  The events of 9/11 happened, and I can remember saying to myself: “…this is terrible, and I FEEL just terrible.”  It was post 9/11 that I began the haunting of my doc’s office.  What were my symptoms of my colon cancer?  They were classic, and then some: anemia, tumor pain in side, restless-leg syndrome, growing fatigue, weakness, losing weight, and shortness of breath.  The irony of this time is that I swam laps each day.  I would often times effortlessly swim 3000 meters, and then I would have a hard time getting up the stairs at the gym.

People started asking me if I’d seen my doc, out of concern, certainly, for the facial pallor that I exhibited.   And I kept going to the doctor…..to be told that I had irritable bowel syndrome, “lots of people have symptoms like you have”,  “…Erika, you are just going to have to learn to live with this..”,  the x-ray was read as “unremarkable”,  ad nauseam.

Those early days in September, 2002, are now a blur of recuperation from surgery in hospital and out, noticing the lovely late-summer greenery, visits to the oncologist, reading Lance Armstrong’s book, wondering if what my docs were advising was correct, wondering if I were dying, being urged to eat more, planning a trip to the Mayo Clinic to get a second opinion for chemo treatment, wondering how I could get out of the lousy relationship I was in, and –at the same time – knowing that divorce wasn’t an option right then.  What was I going to do?  I had an awful lot on my plate!

The good news for me was that the Mayo docs seconded the recommendations for adjuvant treatment.  I started on a chemo regiment in mid-October that was scheduled until into late spring, if I could tolerate it.

In June of 2003, after having completed almost all of the rounds of chemo, I was “dismissed” to the follow-up world of CT scans, quarterly check-ups, recuperation from the chemo, and the multi-year “wait and watch” that every post-treatment cancer patient knows too, too well.  I experienced that infamous (to cancer folks) “Bye, now!” leave-taking from my treatment team.

I had much to do at this point! Having had a sneaking suspicion that my poor marital relationship might have been causal in my cancer, I needed to move out of the house I’d occupied with my then-spouse, That also meant that I needed to find a space in which to recuperate – not an easy task, but I did it!

Not only did I need to confront the pain and work of the much-needed divorce, but the need for personal bankruptcy was also apparent.   Together with all of that, I had to figure out how I would provide income for myself.  All of this was daunting, indeed.

But I was somehow able to get through all of the confronting issues and to march forward into the rest of my life.  I got divorced, I faced my financial issues, I moved into my dream space (all 720 sunny square feet of it!), and I was able to begin my new life as an independent income producer.  (This wasn’t easy as I didn’t know what I would or could do to produce income in this dot-com busting year!)

Fast-forward to my life today; it is so much better today than it was before, and I very much credit my tough experience with late-stage cancer and its aftermath for this new, more thoughtful life.  It feels to me – today – that my confrontation with cancer and LIFE was something that was “given” to me so that my life-long determination to live my life my own way could be tried and tested.

Secretly, I can now confess that my sense of myself pre-cancer was very vague; I don’t think that I felt that my life then had any real merit.  It was – in retrospect – a shallow, selfish, superficial and meaningless life.  My confrontation with a deadly disease made me realize how very special the gift of life is – and also how very, very fragile.

I wondered if I might die post-chemo.  Each time I felt the smallest twinge, I wondered if the cancer were regaining ground in my body.  Surely the other shoe would drop, and I’d be told that my days were numbered.  Today I realize – at a deeper level – that my days ARE numbered, and that I’d sure better make the most of each day I have left!!

During the first 7 years (especially the first 5), I talked almost incessantly about cancer; I talked about my cancer experience, others’ cancer, the eventual cure for cancer, while I participated in almost any cancer-related activity. There’s been a change in me about that.  Today I almost need to be prompted to talk about the experience because – I realize – I just don’t think about it.  Hurray!  I’m a normal human being again – not terribly worried about cancer.  Isn’t this progress?

What more have I noticed from this experience?  Following is a list of mostly  unexpected observations:
1. How much I love my life
2. The importance of loving and supporting others
3. My attraction for the continuing cancer conversation
4. Observing the intensity of life exhibited by the dying
5. Anger at the term “battling/battled with cancer”
6. Knowing – intuitively and from experience – the different language of the cancer world
7. Degrees of survivorship; e.g., who is the real survivor?
8. Do I still belong in the survivor community?  (Are people mad at me because I survive?)
9. Are there signs that survivors exhibit that can predict a long-term survival?
10. If someone embraces their cancer and the cancer world (rather than “putting it all behind me”), is there not a better chance that that person will enjoy longer survival?
11. Being a long-term non-cocktail drinker (21 years) was an important factor in my survival from cancer
12. When I hear/read of someone who has died of cancer, I immediately search for the type of cancer they experienced – and I’m always shocked by the fact that most accounts just say “after a long battle with cancer..”
13. Regular physical exercise really does help in the prevention of cancer recurrence
14. I am fascinated by the obituaries of those younger than I
15. There is always hope – as long-term colon cancer survivor Suzanne Lindley says, “ We live until we die.”
16. I know that I’ve much work that I can do in the world of cancer, and today I look for those opportunities.

Dana Jennings  says it best:  “Strangely enough, although cancer threatened my life it also exalted it, brought with it a bright and terrible clarity. So, no, cancer isn’t a battle, a fight. It’s simply life — life raised to a higher power.”