In August, my oncologist here in San Diego said that I no longer needed to see her on a regular basis. In cancer parlance, this is called being “exited”. There are other words, too, that describe this: “remission”, for example, and, god forbid, “cure”. These are words I didn’t think I would ever hear. I didn’t think I would hear them when I was a child watching errant strands of hair run down the drain. I didn’t think I would hear them when I was a previvor, because I thought I would have surgeries in time to avoid the need for remission all together. Briefly, after my first diagnosis and treatment in 2015, I allowed for the possibility that the word “remission” would come to me someday. But, after my second diagnosis and grueling treatment in 2017-2018, I let go of that possibility and set about learning how to live well in the shadow of my own death.
I headed for the hills, literally and figuratively. In 2019, I dragged my family on a financially inadvisable trip to the Grand Canyon, because post-cancer, I felt compelled to feel small. In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic lockdown, my family and I moved west. We stopped along the way at Bryce NP and Arches NP, entering the rugged expanse of the American west. I decided I would become a hiker. And in the years since, I have.
I’ve been walking all over this damn place. In Irvine, we lived close to Crystal Cove State Park, which has a giant canyon which rewards hikers with 280 degree views of the Pacific Ocean. On some trails, this view lasts for hours. Due to the pandemic and the high cost of living in California, hiking became the thing I did. In 2021, I hiked in Joshua Tree NP, Seqouia NP, Yosemite NP, Channel Islands NP, the Cleveland National Forest, and several California State, Regional, and County parks. In 2022, I even went on my first backpacking trip with my beloved Ward Women in Zion NP. Now, in San Diego, I am slowly exploring the available trails here. It is getting to the point where I start to feel terrible if I don’t get a hike in at least once a week. I can’t imagine this ever not being true about myself. It’s amazing how we can change like this, how we can become something we never could have imagined.
When my oncologist released me, she said, “I think that if your cancer was going to come back, it would have by now.” I explained to her matter-of-factly that I had thought I would die of cancer; that all of the other women in my family who had gotten cancer had died of it, and so I had thought I would, too. My oncologist said, “Well, my advice to you is to go out and live your life.” I walked out of the oncologist’s office in a daze. I was elated. No–on second thought, I was…there are no words for the level of joy I felt. I did not even feel like a feeling. It felt like being posessed by light and warmth, as if I had in fact died at that moment, and I was in heaven. I told my family. We all cried tears of joy. And, the next day I was overcome with grief.
I recently read a story of William Shatner’s experience of going to outer space. At the site of earth, Captain Kirk wept. Shatner is quoted as saying in an NPR story saying, “I was crying… I didn’t know what I was crying about. I had to go off some place and sit down and think, what’s the matter with me? And I realized I was in grief.” Shatner’s response to the view of earth from space has been theorized by SPACE PHILOSOPHER (who knew this was a job??) Frank Wright, as “the overview effect”, where astronauts are struck by grief. White describes the overview effect as “…a cognitive and emotional shift in a person’s awareness, their consciousness and their identity when they see the Earth from space…they’re at a distance and they’re seeing the Earth … in the context of the universe.” (NPR, 2022).
After my experience with cancer, Shatner’s response to viewing the world “in the context of the universe” makes perfect sense to me. When my oncologist released me from treatment, I floated hundreds of thousands of miles above myself, and, like Shatner looking at the earth, saw how cancer and the fear of it had desecrated parts of me beyond repair. Cancer stole the mother I wanted to be for my young babies. It stole my youth. It stole my aunt, and my grandmother, and countless other tiny and seismic things. I saw my own grief, though, in the context of the universe. I saw how right alongside this unspeakable theft were blue oceans and green mountains in my life. My babies grow into full-blown humans, leaving me in wonder and awe. My career summits peaks such that I can see ahead for miles. I remain surrounded by family, by love, friends old and new, a community of people who, every so often when it really counts, let me know that they are happy I’m still alive.
Like earth from space, this view of my own existence is something I can never “un-see”. I can barely even talk about it– it’s taken me four months to even know where to start (highly unusual for yours truly). But, recently I’ve found this new hike near San Diego, in Mount Laguna Recreational Area, in the Cleveland National Forest. I can’t quite find the words to describe it, but sometimes, when I hike, I have a version of the overview effect. In the context of the universe, my cancer and everything that came with it is microscopic, and I, myself, am mercifully larger. We are tiny, terrible, wonderful, and alive.
Thank you for reading. If you or someone you know is experiencing cancer, know that I am wishing you million mile views of the universe.
With all my love,