Nearly two decades ago, when I was in my mid-thirties, a brush with cancer taught me a lesson that fundamentally altered my world view. In July of 1990, I had a pap smear to diagnose some abnormal breakthrough bleeding and was shocked to learn that I had cervical cancer.
The implications of this diagnosis soon became clear. The pathologist suspected invasive squamous cell carcinoma. Four random biopsies were taken, one of which confirmed that the cancer was invasive. My gynecologist struggled to get me accustomed to the idea of losing my uterus and perhaps facing radiation therapy.
A cone biopsy, which would illuminate the extent of the invasion, was scheduled one week after the first biopsy results. That week was very long. I went to work every day, came home, tried to maintain an outward calm for the benefit of my two-year-old son. I felt lucid occasionally, a precarious state of mind punctuated by a madness which, when it descended, made me reluctant to take another step or another breath. At those times I was suspended in total psychic paralysis, poorly balanced on a narrow point of a very high cliff, terrified of the abyss.
I had moved to California just a few months earlier, so my family and friends were a few thousand miles east. My spouse took refuge in the fine art of denial. My father-in-law asserted that given various “female problems,” I would be better off without my uterus anyway. My boss told me that since there was nothing I could do about the cancer, I must not let it affect my work.
I was astounded to realize what an incredibly lonely experience it can be to face one’s own mortality. No one around me had a similar frame of reference; people were generally sympathetic but unable to provide me with any clues about how to deal with such an unexpected turn in my life. I found myself facing my nightmare all alone.
A few days before the cone biopsy, I decided to put work on hold for an hour, and went out for lunch. Having just been blindsided by life, I opted to eat dessert first—after all, one never knows what will happen next—and stopped for a chocolate chip cookie. None were available, a state of affairs that aggravated my irritation at the direction life had taken. Some were baking, however, and would be ready shortly. I went back to the cookie stand after lunch and bought a cookie, semi-sweet chips, no nuts, and headed outside for the walk back to work.
For the previous thirteen years, I had suffered through south Texas summers, where the humidity and the temperature are roughly the same, that is, in the high 90s. I stepped out into conditions I was not yet accustomed to: low 70s, deep blue sky, slight cool ocean breeze.
As for the cookie, it was redolent of sugar, butter, and chocolate, replete with the smooth texture of warm chips.
Thus I unexpectedly found myself immersed in the gift of a glorious day, eating the quintessential chocolate chip cookie, and had the sense to grasp that moment of perfection for what it truly was.
In that blissful instant, the cancer’s existence was irrelevant. I realized that even when life is crashing down around my ears, flashes of shining grace are strewn across my path like glittering gems every day, and can sustain me through the vagaries of fate.
For me, the trick is to remember to be where my feet are. Experienced with awareness and quiet, the present moment can be golden even in adverse circumstances.