I am not a superstitious person.
I experimented with superstition as a child. I had voodoo dolls, lucky rabbit feet, and all manner of charms and talismans. My mom says I was less superstitious than I was simply a hoarder of tiny crystal figurines that required dusting on a weekly basis. But my somber incantations over my crystal unicorn never reliably manifested any of my myopic wishes. And thank God for that: no seven-year-old needs a credit card.
I don’t think there has ever been a book that’s annoyed me more than that Oprah-touted bullshit The Secret. If you want to save yourself the trouble of reading The (trademarked) Secret, here’s the big spoiler: to get something you just have to want it badly enough.
Well, shut down the oncology units in all of the hospitals because we just found the cure for cancer. We all just have to want a cure really badly. I think I can presume to speak for all my fellow patients at the Johns Hopkins cancer institute and say that describes every single person who has walked through the door. It probably even includes the oncologists and nurses. I’m sure they’d love to quit and open a nice, quiet podiatry practice. “That’s quite a bunion you’ve got there, Mrs. Swinton,” is probably much easier to say than: “There’s nothing more we can do.”
I’m not discounting the importance of positive thinking. But while staying positive will obviously help you get through the cancer treatments, and all the bumps along the road of life for that matter, wishful thinking has proven to have very limited targeted, tumor-shrinking powers.
I know people who wanted to live as much as I do, who gave their gift of positive energy to others every day, up until and through their last day. The real Secret (not trademarked) is that people die whether they, or we, like it or not.
But it’s strange. When you are given a diagnosis with a 50/50 outcome, magical realism seizes your brain. Superstitions not only seem plausible, they start to re-attain their childhood sense of reality.
Allowing superstition to roam free in the brain is a dangerous and unnerving habit. At first, still in a state of shock and disbelief, I actively looked for signs everywhere, in every experience, however mundane.
- If my son Max is the first one out the door of camp today, it means I’ll live.
- If Max is in the first ten people out the door of camp today, it means I’ll live.
- If Max comes out the door of camp today, it means I’ll live. (OK, fine, it means he didn’t leave the premises and isn’t wandering off in the woods somewhere, which would be a whole other issue.)
“This has to stop,” Kevin said when I told him I’d found my PET scan result in my horoscope. Actually, six out of nine online horoscopes. The other three probably weren’t right.
I knew it had to stop. I told myself: you can’t torture yourself all day: you have oncologists now for that.
But, even though the magical-thinking phase washed out with the first tide of post-diagnosis emotions, two events have happened since, and I believe they are signs. Maybe.
Unfortunately, they are signs with contradictory messages. I think about them, and wonder what they have to teach me, if anything at all. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Freud said.
I found both signs on Anna Maria Island, on the Gulf coast of Florida, where we vacationed with my parents. Like we had two years ago, we found ourselves switching vacation plans around to accommodate the biggest diva we’d ever met, cancer. We left a week or two after my surgeries and returned two days before I was set to start chemotherapy.
Mentally, I was fine on vacation. I could ignore cancer’s diva antics, live in the moment and not think about my second round of chemo in two years. Well, most of the time I could, but damned if my lymph nodes were still swollen. Was that normal? That couldn’t be normal. The cancer had spread! I Googled it. That was stupid. I broke the first rule of cancer: Do Not Google.
Kevin told me to stop worrying, He suggested I email my surgeon, my beloved Dr. SPO (Sharp Pointy Objects) Schultz, who returned my emails within five minutes, every time, day or night, weekend or weekday. The man must sleep with his phone.
My mom and son were waiting for me to go shelling on the beach.
“Go,” said Kevin.
“I’ll just wait for SPO to call me back,” I argued.
“No. GO. And put it out of your mind. Give yourself the gift of not thinking about it.”
So I did. I tried to take my phone with me but Kevin insisted on keeping it at home so I wouldn’t lookat it the whole time.
I took my net and joined mom and Max on the beach, wading through the shallow waves hunting for sand dollars.
My mom is an avid sheller, and, Max and I strongly allege, a serial killer of arthropods and mollusks. Mom, in her defense, claims she “only takes the empty shells,” but she boils them to “make sure.” That’s how she accidentally boiled an octopus once. When we shell with mom, Max and I spend half our time shelling and the other half surreptiously throwing back the live animals in mom’s net.
But that evening I stood in the waves, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but my damned, swollen lymph nodes. I waded for a bit, fecklessly swinging my net. Then, something caught my eye. I dropped my net into the water and pulled out … a rosary. As I pulled it out of the net, the wet sand fell in clumps off the blue stone beads. I looked up to call out to mom and Max: “Hey, it’s a –” I was about to say necklace.
“Rainbow,” Max said, and pointed to the heavy storm clouds rolling over the bay. The sky, half-storm gray, half-clear blue, was divided with a perfect arc of colors that marked the end of a rainstorm.
“Rainbow,” I repeated. Then I held up the necklace and saw the cross dangling from the chain. “Rosary.”
I burst out laughing. “It’s a sign from God! It might as well be written out on my forehead in Sharpie: Here. Is. A. Sign. From. God.” Mom and Max were too far out in the waves to hear me, which was just as well.
As far as signs from God went, this one was a little gross, I found. It dripped tendrils of seaweed from its crumbling beads. I carefully laid it down in the shell-collection bag we kept on the beach with our shoes.
I took the sign to mean this: “Girl, I got this lymph node thing. Go shell with your mom and your son. Enjoy this moment. It’s lovely.”
So I did. Max, Mom and I found a sandbar with dozens, maybe hundreds of conchs. We stayed on Max’s declared new territory, “Conch Island,” for hours, finding starfish, olives, and more.
When we got back to the house, long after dark, Kevin met me at the door. “Your doctor called. He said you’re ridiculous. Your lymph nodes have a lot of work to do after all that surgery: leave them alone and stop worrying about them.”
I smiled. I already knew. I keep the rosary in my purse now, but in a little plastic bag because this sign from God is, even after washing, a little gross.
The second sign, to put it bluntly, spelled certain doom.
The day after I found the rosary, we went out to lunch. Our waitress at the Rod ‘n Reel was giving me really strange looks, staring at me, looking away when caught, then staring again. Finally, she apologized and told me all the staff in the restaurant had been staring too, which I hadn’t noticed. It freaked me out that they were staring, and freaked me out even more that I hadn’t noticed. I would make the world’s worst spy, I chastised myself.
She explained why they all stared: “You look exactly, and I mean exactly, like one of the former waitresses here. She just died of breast cancer.”
If you were trying to make me scream, that’s one way. You also could’ve poured coffee in my lap to achieve the same effect. But I had to react appropriately, and didn’t know how that should sound.
Possible response #1: “Well, isn’t that an incredible coincidence! I have breast cancer too! And I just found out my breast cancer has metastasized, and the odds of my being alive five years from now just dropped clear down to 50 percent! How about that!”
Possible response #2: “Oh. Wow. Sorry.”
I chose #2. While thinking: this vacation is getting seriously bizarre.
But maybe, thinking back, that’s not the whole story of that sign.
Maybe the larger story is about a rekindled friendship that lay dormant and poorly attended for 10 years.
Laura was the maid of honor in my wedding, and we hadn’t really spoken in ages. Why? Life. Kevin and I moved across the country after we married. Phone calls and emails back to the east coast dwindled. Then the friendship reached the point where you’ve let it go so long you wonder if it would be awkward to call.
Thank God for Facebook. Facebook removed all the “Should I call? Should I not call?” angst and flattened it into a simple transaction: a friend request. So I joined Facebook and refound Laura, and I was happy about it, relieved. But Facebook also relieves you of the responsibility of really re-connecting. You can just check in every once in a while. Send a half-hearted “Happy Birthday!” The expression “phoning it in” could be modernized to “Facebooking it in.”
Earlier in the week Kevin had posted a picture of Anna Maria’s beach on Facebook. Laura saw it, and emailed. Call me, she wrote. I’m right down the street!
I couldn’t believe it, but she was. I mean, I knew she was in Florida, but I had no idea where Sarasota was (I thought it was near Miami). But she was just a few miles away now, and we hadn’t seen each other in years.
And she was thinking about me, and my diagnosis. She’d just lost her mother to cancer. And we’d just shown up in her backyard. Talk about a sign.
We planned to meet at the Rod ‘n Reel for lunch.
So there we sat, with the waitress’ words sitting like the verbal equivalent of hot coffee in my lap.
Maybe the waitress’s comment wasn’t the sign at all. Maybe the sign was what Laura said after we recovered.
“Um. No,” she said. “No.” Then she flipped open the plastic menu with enough force to create waves in the plastic water tumblers. “What are you getting? Should I get a beer? Are you getting a beer?” (Hell, yes.) “What should we get?”
Just like that, it was over. And we were back, just like we were before the waitress came over, and before we let 10 years get in the way.
Am I going to die of metastatic breast cancer? When I was diagnosed, I asked the universe all day every day for an answer, for a sign.
But to my great surprise, I didn’t need a sign for long. My new big-shot Hopkins oncologist answered the question for me. Instead of hedging, like every doctor before him had, he told me no.
“Wait. What?” I asked.
“No,” he repeated. “You are not the fifty percent who are going to die. In fact, you are not a number at all. You are a person. And your personal survival odds are either 100 percent or zero percent. I’m an optimist, so I say they’re 100 percent. Now, what are your survival odds?”
I paused, wondering if this was a trick question.
“One hundred percent,” he answered. “You have to believe it too.”
And so I did, and I do. Because he seemed smart, and able, and not visibly drunk.
And he told me every time I saw him: “One hundred percent.” Every day, one hundred percent.
I no longer feel compelled to ask the voodoo doll, the eight ball, the horoscope, or the crystal unicorn.
My oncologist, the optimist, says no. My friends and family say no. I say no. And maybe my sign in the Rod ‘n’ Reel was that Laura said no, instinctively, protectively, immediately. And then she asked the real question, which is, was, and always will be: what are we going to order off the menu?
There are a lot of choices, and we don’t have all day.