Namaste, Grim Reaper

Posted on in Healthy Living by Valerie Reiss


This marks 10 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. I was 31, working for a magazine called Breathe, doing yoga, and living a relatively healthy life. It was so unexpected that I spent months with a persistent cough, slight fever, then night sweats, an upset stomach, and feeling generally awful. I thought it was stress. Or unresolved issues. So I went to acupuncturists and massage therapists. I drank nasty herbs. I pulled tarot cards. I journaled. Then I finally went to a “real” doctor, who sent me home with cough syrup. But she called back a week later when my blood work came in and sent me to get an abdominal ultrasound. Her lab was booked for a month; I made an appointment.

But I kept getting worse. I finally went to the magazine’s health columnist, an MD who’s also an acupuncturist. He looked over my blood work and shook his head. “There’s something really wrong with you.” He said it over and over, like a mantra. “You’re seeing my internist—tomorrow morning.”

The internist sent me for tests. The ultrasound doc got serious mid-swirl. He saw stuff. He turned kind. He went animal on my insurance company to get me a same-day MRI (which is like getting last-minute seats at a popular restaurant). As I walked out his door, he handed me my file and said, “Let’s hope this has a happy ending.” At the MRI, I read the clinicians’ faces. It wasn’t good.

Finally, the internist called, wanting me to see him in person on a Friday evening for my results. Everyone at work found this as ominous as I did. But we had a late night ahead. I said, “I’ll be back unless I have some terrible disease or something!” No one laughed.

When I got to the internist’s cramped office, he squirmed in his seat, shifting papers. His opener: “I don’t mean to be the Grim Reaper, but . . .”

A lot of words followed while I fell from a steep inner cliff, grabbing tissues as I dove. I found myself comforting him; he was young and nervous and had clearly not much experience delivering shitty news. I left. It was cold, dark, November. I stopped in a church in Midtown that was incredibly bright. Walked more. Finally called work and told my boss it was bad. I called my boyfriend and a best friend, leaving messages to meet me at my house, and just kept walking the 80 blocks home.

From there, I entered a world foreign to my organic, yoga, “nothing bad in my shampoo, please” self. A world of dosages and multiple prescriptions. Of treatments and side effects. I knew some people in my New Age community would tell me I brought this on myself. Later on someone did wonder aloud to my face why I didn’t just use wheatgrass instead of chemo. I lived downtown and was at the World Trade Center site on 9/11. Later, I worked nearby in offices that were never properly cleaned. Blood cancers have been prevalent with responders and nearby residents. I don’t know what caused it. But I have some ideas, ones I can’t let go.

I have stayed cancer free since mid-treatment. I would like to stay that way forever, until I die of some sweet thought in my sleep when I’m 100. I do my best to stay healthy. But we don’t actually know what causes cancer and thus, what keeps it away. The PTSD has abated. But I have had a cough for a while. So I’m moving up my annual appointment.

I have tried to gorge on gratitude, feast on love, call on grace. Some days, like today, when someone posts that “everyone who has had chemo will die in 10 to 15 years,” I get that kind of fear that is solid belly cold. I want to yell at people who say, “Well, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so why does it matter if you had cancer?” It matters a lot. I’ve been hit by a “bus,” and I know there’s no cure for it, and though it might be down the road, another could be coming for me.

And now I have this beautiful person in my life who I want to tend for every milestone and graduation and crisis and romance trouble and everything else. A year or two out of treatment, I told my oncologist I wanted kids. He didn’t think it was the best idea. He wasn’t sure if I’d be here that long, I think. With more years behind me, I asked more seriously what he thought my odds were. And he just didn’t know—this is a cancer that affects older guys. Fertility and cancer and chemo is vastly understudied. But he didn’t think it could hurt. And meeting someone I wanted to have babies with—well, it was done.

And now I am someone’s mother. I stopped Googling. I gambled on going forward. On staying healthy. On being loved and giving love. Some days this feels wise. Others, stupid. It’s all so precarious, right? I feel like mostly all there is to do is to line up how we want to live and do it. Be with who gives us love and energy, do what gives us joy, and minimize the crap we need to do to be grownups. Make choices based on the big yes in our chest whenever possible. Be kind along the way, as best we can. Be gentle when we mess up, which we will. Afford others the same. Realize that our rage at others is pointing at something in ourselves we haven’t acknowledged or embraced. Once we do that, clarity happens.

I make gratitude lists. I talk to friends. I sleep. I eat greens. I drink water. I snuggle and kiss. I help my baby with his verbal skills and walking skills and do my best to mirror him and see him and acknowledge his essential self. I write, for a living. I walk. I breathe. Sometimes I meditate. I mourn for my dear friend who died of cancer well after I healed. I keep it real but not too real. I like reality cooking shows and shopping and reading celebrity memoirs.

I’m signing on, again, to life. “Chapter 2: The Next 10 Years.” Life as a mother—to a person, to my body and soul. Life as a wife and lover to my dear husband, who will cry reading this, which I love. Life as a friend. Life as a writer who gets braver. Life as a survivor, though not just of cancer—life as a survivor of the indignities of being on earth. Of illness and trauma and grief and agitation and of course, joy and love and laughter and bliss. Of pleasure. I welcome grace into this next chapter. And warmth and friendliness and peace and cells that are happy and balanced.

That is not the whole story, or even half of a half. But it’s what I’ve got on this blustery November day that reminds me of another one, 10 years ago, when the Grim Reaper seemed to bow his head and say, “Namaste.”

Valerie Reiss is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health’s publications, Yoga Journal, the Huffington Post, Women’s Health, Natural Health, Beliefnet, the New York Times, and more.

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