Editor’s note: Elizabeth Churchill began writing her blog in 2006 after a grapefruit-sized tumor wedged between her lungs was diagnosed as a malignant highly aggressive stage IV lymphoma. Before her cancer diagnosis, she was the author of a horticultural column, an avid weightlifter, and a homeowner with a beautiful garden north-east of New Orleans. Once she started treatment, she couldn’t work, her relationship with her fiancé ended, and she became so in debt she had to sell her home to pay the bills. Unemployed and with no health insurance, Churchill started writing to keep family and friends informed and herself sane. Here, we excerpt a few of her entries.
I woke up this morning with a dull ache behind my sternum, right where the grapefruit-sized mediastinal mass used to be. Or maybe still is; I don’t know. The pain could be from trying to do too many pushups yesterday, or it could be that the tumor is growing again, pressing hard against my breastbone.
Also, for the past few days I’ve had an annoying little hacking cough. It might just be from postnasal drip caused by the cold weather. Or it might be the tumor pushing against my lungs and esophagus again. Oh, and this mild headache that’s been lurking in the background all week? It might be tension about the CT scans tomorrow, or it might be a brain tumor. And the drenching night sweats could be hot flashes from the chemo-induced menopause, or they could be a symptom of recurring lymphoma. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
And the thing is, this worrisome not knowing is going to be my reality for the rest of my life. Every little ache or swelling or cough or symptom could be the cancer flaring up. Or, it could be nothing. I realize I’m going to have to find a way to coexist with this perennial uncertainty without constantly freaking myself out. Whether I have two months to live or another 25 years, I really don’t want to spend them doing Lamaze breathing into a paper bag.
But you know, it occurs to me that I actually have some practice living like this. I mean, think about it: I currently live on the Gulf Coast, smack dab in the heart of hurricane country. And I lived in California for almost 30 years, only a few miles from the dreaded Hayward Fault. Every time there was a rumble that rattled my windowpanes, I had to wonder: Is this The Big One, or is it just a large truck passing by?
I remember well how jumpy we all were right after the big quake of ’89. I remember sitting through a long, tedious meeting a few days after the earthquake. Boredom made me fidgety and I started unconsciously jiggling my leg, causing the table to vibrate a little. Two seconds later I was sitting there all alone: My colleagues had all dived beneath the trembling table in a collective panic.
But as the weeks and months and years went by, our hair-trigger panic subsided and we went back to being our normal blas selves about the inevitable. Sure, there’s a huge probability that all the skyscrapers and freeways could collapse and burst into flames any minute now, killing us all in 30 seconds, without warning. But so what? We didn’t let our state’s prognosis harsh our mellow. Life was still good, the world was still beautiful, and we were all about the whole crazy carpe diem business anyway.
And now I guess that’s kind of the way the rest of my life is going to be. I’ll be insanely jumpy for a while, but it may become easier with time. I’ll always be fully aware that I’ve got one metaphorical foot poised precipitously on a crumbling levee while the other one balances precariously on a volatile fault line. Always aware of the risks, not denying the grave reality, but at the same time still sane enough to feed the dogs, prune the roses, and happily count the days until Mardi Gras.