Hello from the final stretch of my Spring Break!
I got out of dodge just in time to avoid that latest snowstorm and enjoyed some traveling and some sunshine. I squeezed in time for a second opinion on treatment as well: an update on all that will come soon.
With the sand of the Atlantic and Pacific beaches freshly shaken from my flip flops, I encountered that common experience of coming home from a vacation and being smacked in the face by reality. Instead of denying it exists or shoving it in some emotional drawer, I decided to do what I find helpful: make it a blog post, so we can all get uncomfortable together!
Drop It Like It’s
Hot Not Socially Acceptable to Discuss In Public
There are some topics people advise you to avoid at dinner parties and in polite conversation. Cheif among them are money and religion. We all have some relationship to both subjects, even if it’s a lack thereof.
I don’t mind talking about money because I’m a millennial who likes avocados. (If what I’m saying sounds strange, read that linked article. It’s a riot.) To top things off, I teach theology at a Catholic school. I’m well on my way to being the rudest person ever! So in the style of the 1990s Real World, let’s “stop being polite* and start getting real.”
(*As a personal side note, politeness is a personal tenant of mine. In this instance, we can replace polite with “taboo.”)
I get medical bills in the mail constantly.
Every single one makes me panic a little and/or cry. Yes, even though I have health insurance from my employer. Yes, even when I have someone explain it to me. Yes, even while I understand medical care is expensive and qualified people need to be compensated. (It doesn’t help that my policy is technically two companies with separate plans and they don’t communicate with one another, but that’s for another day.)
Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Let that sink in for a bit. It’s absurd. Many of you may already know it. While you are busy saving your life, you are pretty likely to lose your shirt.
When you have cancer, you are constantly paying medical bills. Yes, even though you “beat” it. Yes, even when you are “in remission.” Yes, of course, I’m happy just to be alive. But my expenses have changed drastically. My diagnosis in particular has an extremely high recurrence rate: 30% have a recurrence within five years of initial diagnosis. I will be cut open, treated, or at the very least, scanned every year for the rest of my life. That means I will likely reach my maximum out-of-pocket expense for as long as I live- regardless of what insurance plan I have.
I am a teacher. No one gets into teaching for the money. The money that I started to put aside for a (tiny) home is now dedicated to keeping me healthy. Here’s where things get complicated: while I admire the lifestyle, I am determined not to live like a monk. I want my expenses to be a reflection of life and not a fear of death. My trip to California made me feel great, gave me memories, even alleviated some of my side effects: worth it. A private restorative yoga session with an amazing teacher helped me find some peace with my body: done.
This is not a money grab nor a plea for sympathy. The reason I’m being vulnerable and borderline uncomfortably honest with you is this: those gofundme and youcaring sites asking for help with medical bills are not for people who are any less hardworking or deserving than you and I. They are for people who need help to make ends meet when life has not gone according to plan. If Notorious B.I.G. taught me anything, it’s that money doesn’t solve problems, but it can alleviate some worries. When you have a diagnosis like cancer, you’ve got enough to worry about and money, unfortunately, is nearly always one of them. Have faith knowing that if you are moved to donate, you’re contributing towards a peace of mind that allows people to focus on their disease and not their declining bank account.
People will say things that hurt, even when they don’t mean to.
I didn’t give anything up for Lent this year. Instead I practiced patience, especially when people said things that were hurtful. (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”) There is not a lot in my life I can control, but I can start by bettering myself.
There are people that look at me with pity, as though a bell will ring and I will get my angel wings at any moment. I observe them looking for signs that I’m healthy or that I’m not- I’m fairly certain I more or less look the same as I did a few months back. I don’t fit the “bald and brave” image of a cancer patient that may come to mind given television, movies, or even personal experience. I know this reaction is well-meaning and coming from a good place and usually more about the other person than me. Maybe it’s bringing up painful memories of loved ones with a similar struggle or their own fears of mortality. I get it. I was there once, too. They’re scared, that’s okay.
To counteract that, I like to be one step ahead of the joke. I’ll lift something potentially heavy and quip, “I should use this arm while I’ve got it!” Or, as previously mentioned, I don’t use traditional household cleaners, and I’ll justify it with “using them is linked to causing cancer.”
Other times, people say things which unintentionally minimize my struggle. “Look on the bright side!” kind of comments or comparing suffering is not always helpful, even when well-intentioned. Yes, I sometimes make “it can always be worse” comments because some days that’s where I am. But on the days when my fingers feel like they’ve been shut in a car door or I have no appetite and the thought of eating anything makes me sick, I’m not interested in the bright side.
When this happens, I remind myself to take a deep breath. I use what Brene Brown calls in her book Rising Strong the “hypothesis of generosity.” Brene suggests that you ask yourself in these challenging encounters, “what is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?” Often I come back to the same conclusion: it’s more about the other person than it is me. The people I love don’t want to see me suffer any more than I do, and it’s more comfortable to think that things can always be worse. Or there just might not be words to capture what either of us is feeling: cancer’s awkward.
In Christian tradition, today is Holy Saturday. It’s the day between Good Friday, when Christ’s death is recalled and Easter when the resurrection is celebrated. One of my favorite Jesuits (yes, I have favorite Jesuits) Fr. James Martin puts it this way: “Most of our lives are spent in Holy Saturday. In other words, most of our days are not filled with the unbearable pain of a Good Friday. Nor are they suffused with the unbelievable joy of an Easter. Some days are indeed times of great pain and some are of great joy, but most are…in between.” My days since my diagnosis have become mostly a Holy Saturday type of day. I’m wedged between the grief of knowing my life will never be the same and the astonishing bliss of simply being alive.
True faith, to me, isn’t about either/or: it’s about both/and. Things don’t fall neatly into the categories of good or bad. Life can be painful and hard; it’s also astonishingly and profoundly beautiful. Cancer is a burden and a teacher. Money is a blessing and a curse, religion is hard and it makes somethings easy: talking about them is uncomfortable and necessary.
Whenever I leave this place, I hope I leave it better than I found it. It’s my hope that I can use this complicated mess I’ve been handed and become a force for understanding – this little blog my attempt at that. Perhaps it goes without saying, but without readers, it would just be a call out into the digital void. (If a blog is posted in an empty forest and no one is there to read it, does it make a sound?)
Thanks for reading, and if you made it through this whole post, thanks especially for getting uncomfortable. Stay tuned for my next entry: racial justice and politics! (Just kidding… though I do talk about those things often! Feel free to reach out if they are of interest to you as well.)