All great myths have this in common. Adventure finds the hero, not the other way around. A shepherd boy is tending his flock; along comes a giant. Just like that, we’re hooked. We have to hear what happens next. This does not mean we’d like to meet a giant ourselves.
Even in fairy tales, heroes don’t just volunteer. Adventure has to knock three times, because the first two times, everybody hides. It takes an all-out assault, pounding at the door, before adventure gets the hero moving. The tests that follow will push this ordinary person beyond the breaking point. Only then does he or she discover the greatness that was inside all along. That’s the Hero’s Journey.
Just after my first surgery—before I was well enough to drive, if we’re being honest—I doubled up my bandages and headed off on a secret mission to the bookstore. I couldn’t explain it to myself, but I had an absolute craving to re-read The Lord of the Rings.
It took me a long time to understand why this story and not some other. Now I know. These heroes are the ultimate underdogs, and they know it. They’re so outmatched, they can never hope to win. They have to find the courage to keep going anyway.
That’s what I wanted to hear about—how I could get myself to stand up and do battle with an adversary as dreadful as cancer? How could I keep myself from running away?
I am not brave. I had to grow my heart and soul just so I could get in the ring and give cancer a fight. After treatment, I was scared to go back for checkups. For years, I woke up each morning afraid that cancer had come back in the night. I wanted just one thing—to be 100 percent sure that cancer would never bother me again. Eventually I realized I’d better want something else, something possible.
I couldn’t wish to “beat” cancer. I couldn’t insist on a specific “victory.” I couldn’t even be sure why I got cancer in the first place. All that was beyond my control.
All I could do was choose how I feel about the struggle. In that moment, an idea came to me, so strongly that it scrolled across my mind like a sentence in a storybook:
I EMBRACE THE ADVENTURE OF LIFE BEYOND CANCER.
Yes, I thought. That.
Not life after cancer. Life beyond. Because how can I know? Not accept. Embrace. Because what choice do I have? Not illness. Adventure. Because cancer is the giant that will call forth the giantkiller in me.
Cancer is tougher than the adventure stories we grew up on, because cancer never runs out of ways to scare us. We have to live this adventure in real time, complete with cliffhangers, plot twists, misleading clues, and unbearable suspense. We can’t count on an old-time happy ending. We have to create our own.
Your cancer journey will demand lots of possibly perilous choices between therapies and hospitals and drugs. Each one feels like a crossroads where you have to answer a riddle posed by a troll. If you’re like me, you’ll be furious there’s no third choice, where you didn’t have cancer in the first place.
You can choose to look harder. You can remember your fourth choice—your great choice. You can embrace this adventure. Claim it as your path.
In place of a happy ending, you get something richer. You get the ability to handle each moment while you’re in it. You learn that when you’re doing something you love, you can forget to be afraid for hours at a time. Sure, you’ll be scared later. So what? In this moment, you’re Well Again.
Let the journey begin.
THE WELL AGAIN PATH offers simple truths that every cancer voyager can rely on. To learn more, visit www.wellagain.org.
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