The first post-transplant PET scan was in June, and it was clear. No lymph nodes lit up. No indications the cancer had returned. Unlike my days in the hospital and the return of my white blood cells the news was greeted warmly.
On September 9th I will have another PET scan as a pre-planned part of the normal monitoring after a stem cell transplant. Assuming everything is clear the scans will become less frequent; PET scans will be replaced with less involved CAT scans, and so on. After about 5 years, if all goes well, there will be little monitoring of any kind.
Assuming all goes well.
That’s the trick, of course: all going well. Throughout two rounds of chemo and through the transplant I always hoped for things to go well… but often they didn’t. Coming up to a scan was a growing chorus of worry with a crescendo of doubt in an examination room moments before meeting with the doctor for results.
My clear scan in June was the same, and frankly I expected the summer to be relief from good news making an inevitable transition to doubt and worry for the upcoming scan. But a funny thing happened: I chose to have a cancer free summer. Not biologically of course, but in my mind, I wasn’t going to worry about what might be going on in my lymph nodes for the three months between scans. I rollerbladed for the first time in three years. I said yes to projects. I taught, and I went on short trips. I got fat and furry and, well, I had a cancer free summer.
People asked during treatment if somehow I appreciated things more. Knowing that my time on Earth may be limited by cancer did I pay more attention to sunsets, blades of grass and such. Nope. I was too busy, or too sick, or too worried, or too tired, or, well, too cancer focused. I wrote earlier about using cancer, and I did. I paid very close attention to my boys, my wife and such, but I was always paying attention because I had cancer. It is too fine a line between paying attention and paying attention while you still can.
I wrote earlier on having optimism, and I was optimistic… but really, I was cautiously optimistic. The kind of cautious optimism that makes you smile as you re-check your life insurance policy and tuck a list of all your passwords for your wife into the safe.
These have all been things I have learned with cancer. This summer I learned something after cancer (or at least between…I’m still cautiously optimistic). I can make a decision to truly embrace the present. I decided to have a cancer free summer. Not to ignore reality, but rather to be joyful in the day. When I glide down the trail by Onondaga Lake I smile. The sky does indeed seem more brilliant and blue. The farmers market is a must for my Saturdays… not because it may be my last trip there, but because it is brimming with color and scents and it makes me happy.
This summer, this very day, I am genuinely happy. This summer has had its challenges, and I have had bad days, but I always return to a state of bliss. I am not living for the next scan, though I know full well that it is coming, and I know full well that it may not be clean. That is for the 9th not today. I am disappointed that I can’t go to the state fair this year with my compromised immune system. But you know what, it’s just a fair.
I wish I could tell you how to make a decision to enjoy your present. I hope it doesn’t take cancer to find this place. I also don’t know how long it will last. Is this just a summer, or can I continue to decide to be present and joyful? I hope so.
Throughout this book I have tried to look for some deeper meaning in my journey. I have tried to use pain to teach, uncertainty to give hope, and tragedy to call for action. Today’s sermon is not about deeper meanings, or tragedy, but perhaps one more lesson on hope. I hope for you to find joy in the moment. I hope you have the ability to choose to be happy. Be it the rainbow after the storm, or simply a respite before the next fight, I hope for you the bliss of simply living.
-David Lankes, August 22, 2014