Not long ago, I watched Joan Baez’s 75th birthday concert. Many stars shared the stage with her, playing the music of my youth. When the song "There but for fortune" came on, I cried. I don’t often cry, but as I've recovered and distanced myself from my latest surgery and cancer treatment I've found that certain music, or even movies, can reawaken the feelings made dormant by my traumatic illness.
These tears seem to be a sign that my spirit is reawakening. The tears are not from sadness or self-pity. They mark a return of myself to the rest of the world.
The thought of going forward with treatment and reconstruction has haunted me from the end of my first operation, during which my nose was reconstructed. After a week or two had passed, I thought it would be better to die than go through that agony again. I managed to regain the capacity to proceed, with the help of friends and family. The repetition of operations and the repeated resolve to not go through that experience again has cycled through six times in the last three years. I managed to recover physically and emotionally each time.
Most recently, the cancer returned after the reconstruction had been completed. This seemed the worst cut of all: setting me back to the starting point three years before. I thought it couldn't get worse. The news that the surgery that removed my reconstructed nose didn't remove all of the cancer was devastating. But it wasn't as devastating as the radiation treatment that would soon follow.
After six weeks of sessions (five days a week), I was exhausted and in pain. After another week, I was in agony. The healing doesn’t start after the radiation stops. In fact, it keeps cooking, like a microwave. After a year, I still hurt a little from the surgery and the radiation. But I am still -- and finally -- free of the cancer.
I miss the times I could jump into my life each day and bring the best of me to be in the world. I wonder if my pain is from operations, radiation, and depression from the trauma or fatigue from the work of the last three years. But the cause of the pain is not too important — knowing wouldn't help much. The scars from the entire experience are all tumbling around inside me. It has felt as though the minute I dealt with one of the scars, another would pop its head up.
Drastic changes in my health and physical strength have left my life smaller and less varied. It is a quickly narrowing world. I miss being able to go and do, to act and interact. As my healing progresses, I can move closer to the health and life I remember. Little steps bring improvements every day, as I move forward to participate in my life again.
There are moments of peace and contentment. I have had many quick moments of heartfelt joy: my niece including me in activities as a friend; spending time with my brother talking in his apartment, healing together; a surprise gift from my sister and her husband from their vacation, inspired by a comment I made years ago.
These I focus on. I need to keep them in mind. These moments when my heart is touched by a passing grace have been sprinkled all through this terrible process. This little kindnesses have come along just when I needed them. So when I cried that night when I was watching and hearing a song from my distant youth I found myself crying. Tears of joy. Tears of sadness. Tears of grief and mourning which have led me to go forward not with the reckless arrogance I begin with.
Somehow I am humbler now. That has brought me to a place where I can move forward. I have learned that this is not a sprint. It is a marathon and I am running it, and there are many people helping me and I will reach the end. Whole and cancer free.
Michael Furze is a 63-year-old man currently recovering from an extensive skin cancer on his nose and cheek; he notes that "I am grateful to the doctors at and staff at Stanford for their treatment and care through this difficult time in my life." This piece was written as part of "Writing Your Cancer Journey," a cancer-writing group at Stanford.
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