Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This past weekend my daughter's friend cancelled two playdates in a row. I suspect she made the dates in the first place without consulting her mother about the family's plans, but still. The end result was that my daughter was crushed. She would not allow herself to be consoled by the prospect of making brownies, or playing a board game, or any of the other things dorky moms try to do to cheer up their glum children. Her weekend was ruined. Her LIFE was ruined. She had no friends, and obviously would not ever have friends. There was clearly little point in going on.

I tried to walk her back by reminding her that we only knew one thing: that Malia was not able to come over to play. Everything else was a spindly castle of doom she had constructed on that one small point of fact.  The castle of doom was the story she had chosen to tell herself. I argued that she was free to tell herself many other stories, all equally true--such as that Malia wasn't coming over because she impulsively made plans without checking with her mom first, that she really wanted to come over, and would come over at the first opportunity. I told my kid that the longer we sit inside the stories we tell ourselves, the more true they become for us, until we're no longer able to see the truth of other possible stories, and we are trapped.

My wisdom would be a lot more impressive if I listened to it myself. Yesterday I went to Duke Cancer Center to meet my oncologist. Not my ocular oncologist, but my regular oncologist, the one I will work with on an ongoing basis, because I am a Person With Cancer. I hadn't been thinking about that too much because I was too busy packing lunches and walking dogs and leaving the laundry in the dryer to wrinkle folding laundry, but there, in the Duke Cancer Center waiting area, it was indisputable: I was a Person With Cancer. Furthermore, so were most of the other people sitting there, and there were a lot of them. It was a perfectly attractive waiting room, with nicely upholstered chairs and couches, and tables with magazines. Apparently, I alone could see the slimy dripping stalactites and the bubbling pools of tar that indicated that we were in the anteroom to Hades, that we were citizens of the Valley of the Damned. Everyone else sat around nicely, chatting with their companions and eating the complimentary snacks.

I held it together until a nurse ushered me into an exam room, but when she shut the door I lost it, I absolutely LOST it, because I was sitting in a cancer center, and I was obviously there to die painfully and alone while horrible people like Wayne LaPierre and certain of my ex-boyfriends were bounding about out in the sunshine, perfectly healthy and probably immortal. I wept bitterly.

All of which is to say: I had worked myself into a bit of a state.

The lovely physician's assistant discovered me in this condition, patted my hand and told me what I was feeling was totally normal and quite okay, but also that there was an overwhelming likelihood that I would walk out of the office under my own steam that day. She promised to send the clinic's wonderful
counselor to say hello if he wasn't too busy. He was, but he stopped by anyway and acted as if I was the only person in the clinic that day, and also as if he didn't believe that I belonged in either the morgue or the state hospital.

The person who really snapped me out of my carefully-crafted castle of doom was the doctor, who very calmly looked at pitiful, soggy me, and said, "You know, there's about an 80% chance that you will never need any more treatment for this cancer."


I still hate being a Person With Cancer, I hate that I have to think about it at all, ever. I hate that there are other people who have to think about it a lot more, a lot more often. But I think the story I have to tell myself is that 80%. I think I just have to forget about cancer as much as it will let me, which mercifully is most of the time. I have to focus on other stories.


  1. This is just one of the best things I've read in a long time ... I'd like to share this with the church I serve - via email. Okay?

  2. And if I were to give in to chills you give me every time I read something you write, I'd have perished from hypothermia long ago. Bless your fantastic heart.

  3. How strong you are, Rebecca, to be able to alter the path of your thoughts under very scary circumstances. And to pass that wisdom onto your daughter. By the way, why DO kids do that with the play dates? Drives me crazy. I always insist upon speaking to the parents, but half the time they're just as flighty. Sigh.

    1. Some days, my thoughts and my bladder are the only thing I have control over...and even then, only just!

  4. (((hugs))) I <3 you and I'm sorry you have to be a Person With Cancer. It does suck. You express it so beautiful.
    Related: I have started crying in some doctor's offices and also once pre-minor surgery when I walked in the waiting room and realized it was where I had my major surgery too. It just hit me. And suffocated me and all I could do is cry.
    Not unrelated: you get snacks in your waiting room? I think I'll have to tell my oncologist about this and get some in mine too ;-)

  5. I wish you all the best my dear! Me and my alternative treatment for cancer center wishes you all the best. Thanks for sharing your wonderful story. Have a nice day!

  6. Rebecca, I just followed your comment on my site to this blog. Bless you for your candidness, courage and gift for expressing it all so beautifully. So much peace and continued healing to you!!

    Molly Sabourin