Living in the Present Despite Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • As I write this, the hazy sun casts long shadows over the early evening landscape, and I’m drowning in air that feels like the inside of a shower stall after a 20-minute shower. It’s 95°F; the humidity must be in the 90s, as well. Heat radiates off every surface, making trees on the distant horizon wobble and shimmer, while close at hand a slight breeze breathes even hotter air languidly through the leaves and branches over my head.


    OK, I know, it’s summer, it’s supposed to be hot. But not THIS hot. Not in New Hampshire. Anyplace where the temperature drops to –35°F in the winter has no right skyrocketing to 100°F in the summer – there should be some even tradeoff. High heating oil prices for high air conditioning prices. Not both.

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    But here we are, suffering through yet another heat wave. And challenging though it is, I’m sitting outdoors, determined to really feel the heat. I mean, how often do you get to feel completely and absolutely warm, all the way through? Not often up here in northern New England, where the seasons include almost winter, winter, still winter, and poor sledding.


    I hear the rasp of the cicadas, and the whooshing sound of car tires on hot asphalt. I smell wet grass; the neighbor next door is watering his lawn. And everywhere I look I see summer wearing its fine greenery.


    I’ll follow a similar routine this winter: stand outside, in the heart of a blizzard, in order to feel the sharp needle-pricks of snowflakes whipping my face, and an icy wind snaking its way through the narrow slit between jacket and hood.


    I decided, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, to live in the moment. And it takes constant, everyday practice.

    Living in the moment means I don’t look back, to how my life could have been different. A million seemingly random choices, all tangled up in fate, have brought me to where I am today: a woman with cancer, taking each day as it comes.


    I don’t look too far forward into the future, either. Not knowing where my life will lead me, not making too many plans, leaves me completely open to any possibility; if I’m going to die next year (or tomorrow), I don’t want to know about it. I’m too busy living today.

    By clearing my mind of disappointments from the past, and worry about the future, I leave myself only today to work through. And not burdening myself with the stress of regret and apprehension gives me strength.


    Sometimes, today takes all the strength I have. Today, a friend told me he’s had a recurrence of his very rare and practically untreatable cancer. Four years ago, we edged our way through cancer treatment; not together, but concurrently. We compared symptoms; sighed about side effects, worried how our illness was affecting our respective friends and families. Then we both got better, picked up our lives, and marched on.


    Now he’s been struck another blow; he’s entering that whirling vortex of drugs and surgery and illness, that place that gradually fades from your mind, unless you’re forced back into it. As he is now.


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    What can I say to him – I’m sorry? You drew the short straw? No words seem adequate in the face of this dark storm.


    But I gather my thoughts, look into my heart, and give him what encouragement I can, one survivor to another.


    Tomorrow is another day.

Published On: August 07, 2006