Life with Cancer: A Road Less Traveled

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Life with cancer creates new friendships and bonds. This post is for Angelina.

It was hot this past weekend, but at 8,500 feet on the Tahoe rim, it was a beautiful day. I hiked with a friend, Angelina, who is dealing with stage 4 lung cancer. Angelina is a health nut and yoga teacher. She defies the false myth that only people who smoke get lung cancer.

We set our sites on the crest of the hill, quite a ways up, and we started walking through the forest. We navigated boulders and trees, and at one point had to bypass a beautiful, but wet meadow brimming with flowers. That Tahoe scent of pine filled the warm summer air.

Up, up, up we climbed. Angelina carried her portable oxygen tank, a generous gift from a caring friend. We stopped periodically so she could ease her pain.

Clearing the ridge, the lake exploded into view. Breathtaking! We stopped and simply took in the beauty and the power of all that stood before us. Life with cancer makes these moments infinitely sweet.

Cancer creates a unique bond between people. Cancer buddies understand your concerns. Doctors, bills, endless expenses, toxic treatments, side effects, hope, despair, even death…one needs an understanding audience for such difficult topics.

Angelina, in addition to dealing with a deadly cancer that has spread to her hip and spine, has an additional battle: no medical insurance. She has to call, plead, and even beg to be let in the door. As a result, her treatments have been delayed/denied and her cancer has spread. She is desperately trying to get some radiation to stop the cancer’s growth in her spine and hip and to get some relief from the relentless pain.

We talked about our lives and experiences. About taking “the road less traveled”. Angelina laughed and noted that we even chose an irregular, off trail approach to finding the summit while there was a nearby trail that would have taken us at least part way.

You need to write about this in your blog, she said. About taking a different path. About avoiding the bike path and instead traversing the rocks and trees in an irregular ascent, and as a result stumbling upon a beautiful meadow that no trail would have found.

Both Angelina and I have followed our own paths. She’s been very true to her soul. She’s a nurturing, kind person who always wants to help. It took cancer for me to stop and reassess where I wanted to be. And then I made some major changes.

I’m not unfamiliar with risk or change. I spent nearly 15 years flying sailplanes (gliders) and I know what it is to leave a familiar airport and fly towards some remote, unseen location on a map based on faith in your abilities as a pilot to read the weather, to find lift and to navigate to an unseen turn point.

Flying is very present moment. And it’s full of pilot metaphors that apply to so many life events: What goes up, goes down; Never mess with the sky gods; Altitude is your friend.

Perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s cancer, but I see many analogies and metaphors wherever I turn. Our irregular path to the mountain crest; stumbling upon a flowered meadow; or dancing on a bubble of air at 17,000 feet above Tahoe.

But I don’t think I want to see the metaphor in Angelina’s cancer. Two years ago, when we first met, she was fine. I see her teaching yoga on the beach. Laughing, loving Tahoe and everyone she came in contact with. Then, out of the blue, cancer strikes. It’s like hitting rapidly sinking air with little altitude to spare and no land out options. Fly fast through sink, pilots say. What do you do with stage 4 lung cancer?


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