The final installment of my cancer story took place on September 20, when I underwent reconstructive surgery at MD Anderson. The surgery was a cinch compared to chemo and the double mastectomy; my only issue was a prolonged feeling of fatigue, for which I blame anesthesia, rather than aging. Driving back into the medical center this Tuesday for my post-op appointment with the fabulous Dr. Mark Villa, a feeling of déjà vu hit me all over again.
Around this time last year, I drove to MD Anderson and scheduled a mammogram because I couldn’t get anyone to return my calls. I felt in my right breast a few weeks earlier this weird “patch” area (not a “pea” or a “pearl” you hear about, but in the “p” word family, nonetheless). While I never took seriously self-exams, I failed to get a mammogram for two years — truly foolish for a high-risk clinic patient whose entire female family tree has had breast cancer. What can I say? I’ve been busy.
That day, after scheduling my appointment for the following week, I left the Nelly B. Connally Breast Center on the fifth floor and walked across the street to a labyrinth recently installed near the UT Health School of Nursing. I enjoyed a lovely walk on one of the most unique circuits in Houston under the canopy of a sprawling oak tree.
Pulling into the MD Anderson parking garage, I pulled up on my phone pictures from that day and validated my “been there done this” feeling. I walked that labyrinth 364 days ago. My cancer journey fit neatly within one year’s time.
Watch my “364 Days with Cancer” for some highlights from the past year.
So, after Dr. Villa’s team gave me a clean bill of health, I stopped in the Waterfall Cafe for an iced tea and then, once again, walked back across the street to the flagstone and gravel labyrinth. For the past year, I took the shuttle across the walkway connecting MD Anderson’s Mays Clinic to the Main Building and looked down on that labyrinth below – always empty. Today, patients looked down on me as I reached the center of the space and stood with my arms outstretched in gratitude. I prayed for each person — by name — who brought me a meal, joined me for chemo, and sent me gifts, cards and texts, pleading with God to spare them and their families from cancer. I thanked God for all of the physicians, nurses and medical professionals who cared for me. I asked for healing mercy for two dear friends still in the grind of their treatment protocol. Winding back out of the center, I saw under the tree a granite marker that read:
One year ago, I was ready to die. Now, I am ready to live. What a difference a year can make.
After taking a break from graduate classes last semester, I am now enrolled in Christian Iconography I with Dr. Charles Stewart. During a break in Monday night’s class, he asked if I received his email regarding my sunglasses; I replied that I had not because I rarely check my University of St. Thomas email account.
“Right,” he acknowledged, “because we tried to get in touch with you last semester to inform you that you were awarded a travel grant from the art history department.”
“You received a grant to go study art anywhere you’d like, but because we never heard from you and assumed your treatment was difficult, we gave the money to another student who used it to go to Israel.”
“However, we have a grant for THIS year and want to extend it to you again if you are able to go.”
“What are you TALKING about?!” I blurted out, assuming the surrender cobra position in front of the class.
Dr. Stewart looked confused, but patiently started over. “Our department has a travel grant…” No, I got it the first time. I got it that I got it and I still have it.
The following day in Dr. Villa’s office, I scribbled on the back of an MD Anderson flyer my proposed itinerary and devoted the remainder of the day to crafting a plan:
Now I’m hourly checking my UST email to see if the plan is approved and I can book my flights, trains, hotels, etc.
Dr. Villa’s nurse and I shared a sweet conversation before he came in on Tuesday. I told her how the past year had been a beautiful disaster. She nodded in agreement saying, “Patients tell me all the time, ‘Thank God for cancer.'” (Granted, easy to say when on the other side and in remission.) During the past year, I’ve reconnected with so many old friends, one of whom is allowing me to be her date to our 25th SMU reunion in November. My children learned how to care for me (Hampton ran upstairs after school to watch ESPN, Eliza made me Spotify playlists, among other things). My work family showed me such grace when I didn’t show up, and asked “Why are you here?” when I did. My mailbox and inbox welcomed innumerable notes of encouragement. One friend sent me a letter EVERY DAY since my treatment began. EVERY DAY!
My sister’s house flooded during Hurricane Harvey and, as bad as it was, I was able to say from experience, “It will be a beautiful disaster, just like my cancer.” And so far, I remain the smartest big sister she’s ever had, as people continue to show up in creative ways. My friend Lance said in response to my diagnosis, “This will be a long road to a good outcome.” More circuitous than planned, but he was right, too.
In May, I painted this at Sarah Gish’s World Labyrinth Day event held at a newly-installed path at Grace Presbyterian Church. People unfamiliar with labyrinths confuse them with mazes, but there is one distinct difference. A maze is designed for play, with many entrance and exit points, twists and turns. Alternately, a labyrinth is designed for peace and offers only one path to prevent getting lost. The past 364 days have taught me that, in spite of trauma, there is a path of peace and from here on out, I’m taking to heart Matthew Henry’s commentary on Psalm 34:14:
It is not enough not to do hurt, we must study to be useful,
and to live to some purpose; we must seek peace and pursue it.
In keeping with the premise of this blog, below are examples of art & life, this time pertaining to labyrinths. The painting at the top of this post is an 18th century icon at the Russian State Museum of Religion, an image Dr. Stewart introduced to us in class this week. The slideshow below shows more images of the symbol hewn into stone and metal and painted in frescos. I threw in a few extras of Eliza and me on different labyrinths. She’s built several, including paths in Ecuador and France, and delivered this TED Talk about labyrinths in 2015. If you’re interested in joining a labyrinth build in Houston or abroad, contact Reginald Adams, founder of Sacred Sites Quest International or Jay Stailey, who’s taking a group to Ecuador in February. Locally, Sarah Gish hosts a labyrinth walk once a month around town, as well. I’m grateful to call each of them friends. And for an example of the synergy between cancer AND labyrinths, read this.