The Week I Was Dying of Cancer

29 November 2010 

THE WEEK I WAS DYING OF CANCER
 
 
 
 
                Truth be told, I was driving and texting when she called. I was plotting my first foray into film directing and emailing my D.P. about Dutch angles when the phone rang.   I hit the button on the steering wheel, activating my Bluetooth, marveling still that at a flick of a switch, a voice can suddenly encompass my car in stereo.  
 
                We have the results of your blood test. I had recently been to my gynecologist for my annual exam, fearful I may be stepping my toes into the mysterious land of perimenopause and other foreign maladies.
 
                She said, we need you to come into the office. I had never been told to come into the office before.   What’s up? I turned left, heading up La Brea to pick up my daughter from school. 
               
                We had two abnormal test results:  CA-125 and cholesterol. Oh. Well. I always run high in cholesterol. So does my dad, my grandmother. It’s that Southern cast iron skillet tumSouthern blood. We deep fry Caesar salad, so it’s bound to happen. I’ll lay off the beignets. 
 
                We need you to come in and take an ultrasound. 
 
                For high cholesterol? No. For the CA-125. What’s CA-125? It sounds like a highway in California.
 
                It’s the Ovarian Cancer test, Katherine. 
 
 
                I was now on Fountain, bottled up near the red light, when I noticed a young Latina woman wearing a gray GAP sweatshirt and jeans, making her way to her car parked on the street. She was slight, her hair was in braids and she wore glasses.  The cars drove too close as she flattened her body against her car, waiting patiently to open the door.   I wanted to shout out – hey, girl, be careful – when I realized the young woman was Mayra, my daughter’s preschool teacher. 
 
                My heart flooded with such love that I thought of the book “The Little Prince” written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  To the world, Mayra is like a hundred thousand other young girls, walking a crowded street to her car on an overcast afternoon in Hollywood. They don’t know her. They’ve never seen her on the school yard, they've never watched her tenderly hold a crying child in her arms or calm a mother’s fears.   But to me, this was Mayra, unique in all the world.  
 
               
                The first time I heard "The Little Prince" was two decades before.  Pathos-seeking tears prompted Paul to race out of my apartment, run down the stairs to his, then back up to mine again, carrying a battered copy of the book.  He sat gently on the floor, next the bathtub, politely averting his eyes, and he read “The Little Prince” to me while I cried, my Cancer shell retreating under water after my first real heartbreak.  
 
                “It is the time I wasted on my rose that makes her so important.” “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” 
 
                I was in my early 20s. I didn’t know then that I would fall in love again and in deeper and more profound ways.   I didn’t know then that with each new love, my heart would grow stronger, stretching like taffy, pulling me closer and closer not to a perfect lover, but to a perfect love. I didn’t know then that you should be happy love happened at all, no matter how it had ended.
 
 
                Learning you may be dying of cancer opens up your eyes to life in ways that our daily walk with immortality does not. Once you see an expiration date on your own personal milk carton, you want to drink up that milk as fast as you can. Make sure every last drop is savored and enjoyed and that it does not spoil. Have I done enough, loved enough, lived enough?
 
                At a Buddhist retreat years ago, we all lay on the cold floor in the dark, contemplating our own death, our own descent into the grave. It was then that I realized – even if my consciousness, my spirit moves on, even if I do reincarnate into another body, and live in another time – this me, this package, this person - will never be again. I didn’t like it very much.  
 
 

                One of my favorite openings of a movie is from Love, Actually, written and directed by the divine Richard Curtis. Actually, I don’t know if he’s divine – I have never met him, I just love the beauty of his work. The opening monologue said:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion love actually is all around… 

                After my mother and father got divorced, my father would pick us up on weekends. My younger sister and I would take turns choosing where we wanted to go. My sister loved the bowling alley, miniature golf and Disneyland. I always chose LAX.  

                So that means, every other weekend, we ate lunch in the “flying saucer” that overlooked Los Angeles International Airport, then I picked an arrival gate and we stood and watched the reunions. I was particularly fond of those who carried signs and balloons.                                   

             Airports seem so lonely now. Only passengers are allowed in the terminals and all the emotional reunions have been moved to baggage claim and it’s just not the same. 

             Maybe it’s the word baggage, suggesting that we all carry around too much. Or maybe it’s because normalcy has returned in the 15 minutes it takes you to land, depart, then ride the escalator down to the bowels of the circular steel beltway to claim your goods.     

                Not to say the hugs aren’t there – just that they’ve been tempered by thought, by earthiness and real life.   The euphoria of the moment – of landing safely, after being 32,000 feet up in the air, where humans fear to tread – is gone.  The europhia of the moment - of walking down that dark tunnel from the plane into the light - and seeing his or her face, waiting for you - is gone.  

                But still, to this day, I love airports. I love the promise they give, their offer to take you on a journey to a faraway land, out of your element and into a new you. And if you’re so inclined, you can leave your baggage behind. Your real baggage that is, because it’s always there, waiting right by the front door when you get back and if you really want to pick it up again and carry it around, you can. But for the moment, don’t we all feel a bit lighter, a bit freer when we fly without it?  

                So yes, I was thinking of all that -- I’m dying of cancer, oh, look, there’s Mayra, I recognize her, remember how Daddy said I loved airports when I was little, just to see the love on people’s faces when they recognized someone?, what kindness it took for Paul to read "The Little Prince" -- when I hung up the phone with my appointment for an ultrasound in one week. 
 
 
 
            I pulled up and parked in front of my daughter’s school. I shut off the car and looked at the building. At the bright red color and I thought – she is still so little. Too little for her Mommy to die. This can’t be right. This can’t be how it works. But I also knew that this is how it works. People die too young all the time. 
 
                I quietly walked onto the school yard and watched my daughter play. She didn’t see me at first, and I always appreciate the almost voyeuristic moment of seeing her with her peers, watching who she is without me.  Finally, she turned and saw me. Her face lit up, she dropped what she was doing and she raced to me, leaping into my arms. My tears fell into her hair.  
 
 
            In an episode of Army Wives, I referenced the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which has a haunted me longer than most anything I have read. You can bake the pies, you can greet the sun, but sooner or later, it’s your turn to get the X. I got the X. 
 

                I spent most of that first night online, researching Ovarian Cancer, also called The Silent Killer.   Of course I had all the symptoms – bloating, feeling full quickly, and pelvic pain. Of course, I was afraid. Of course, I felt very alone, with no lover to hold me and tell me I would be all right. 

 

 

            I got up the next morning with a renewed sense of excitement, almost of wonder. Hey. I’m alive another day. What do I do with these fabulous 1440 minutes? I filed the papers for my non-profit with the Secretary of State, I booked a villa in the South of France for my close friends and family and I called one person and told her about the test result, saying, hey, kinda scared here. Can you help? She did. She listened. She told me she loved me. 
 
              What came next was almost as extraordinary. I was kinder, I was nicer. I bought a coffee for the stranger behind me at Starbucks. My voice was slower, softer. I suddenly got it in ways I hadn’t before. I saw the world as sacred.  I saw my time here as beautiful.  These 1440 minutes are all you have – on what rose are you "wasting" them?  
               

 
            I got quiet. I sat with myself. The last time I sat with myself I collapsed on the bathroom floor after a miscarriage after two painful years of infertility treatments. I knew something beyond medicine was the issue. I sought the advice of a spiritualist. I learned the emotional is as potent as the medical. What we believe or feel about ourselves is what we manifest – somewhere deep inside, I didn’t feel I deserved to be a mother. 
               
                In many 12 step programs, you have to make amends. You can’t move forward, until you clean up your past. Some of those I called didn’t even remember the event I was talking about. Others said, it meant the world to them to know “why” I did what I did. I remember one afternoon, having hourly appointments in my home. I opened the front door and ushered in my 3 o’clock. Come inside. Now, tell me, how have I hurt you today?  Finally, it was done. I was cleansed. Open. Available. I got pregnant a week later.  

                I had a friend turn 50 recently. To him, the number signified a milestone. It was time to take stock of how well he has done so far. On Highway CA-125, I too was taking stock. Assessing my choices, my road trip so far.  

                It occurred to me that I was always going through the difficult times alone. Not because I didn’t have wonderful friends and family, because I do. I was always alone during difficult, scary times because I had a long pattern of choosing lovers who were not ready, willing or able to love me back. But no one put a gun to my head. I had chosen these unavailable lovers. I kept driving down the same Highway that led to the same destination - heartbreak.  What does that say about me?  If I really wanted a loving, stable, consistent relationship - then I had to get on a new Highway and fast.  

 
            I sat on the floor of my daughter’s room and I colored the toenails of a T-Rex pink. I read her "The Little Prince." I made her a playlist of her favorite songs, beginning with “Wish Right Now,” (Airplanes by B.o.B.). In the morning, Madeleine always gets into the car and says, “Mommy, I want to hear wish right now.”  Then in the evening, Madeleine points to the airplanes in the night sky and says, “Mommy, there goes a wish right now.” 
 
                I confided my news to a few more close friends. One was a school Mom that I just blurted it out to when I saw her on the sidewalk in front of the school one morning. I didn’t know her well enough to expose such an intimate detail, but something about her kind face compelled me to do so. My heart beat faster as I did. She grew pale – then said, you told the right person. I struggled with Ovarian Cancer too and I lost a very close friend to the disease. I am here for you.  And she was.  
 
                Many times when we hear difficult news, when someone is sick, when someone is in pain, we say, “Hey, if you need anything, just let me know.” But how often does that person really just let you know? It’s hard to ask – hard to be put into a position to make a call for help, when you’re already feeling down. I’ve learned to just do now. Just show up, get on a plane and sit together by the sea. Surprise them with flowers at home, a gourmet meal at their work or a care package in the mail. Or call. Just call and say, I’m here, with you, right now. Let’s talk about anything you want. 
 
 
            I lay in bed at night, no longer answering emails on my Blackberry, but instead softly humming Wish Right Now to the rhythm of my daughter’s breath as I watched her sleep. In the space of a week, I had slowed down. I had remembered again what mattered. I had lived as if I was dying. 
 
                I was alone at the ultrasound. I was nervous, keeping my boots on in the stirrups. I had a cyst on my ovary. It was 4.4cm. My ovary is the size of an almond. I love almonds, eat them almost daily and will never look at an almond the same way again. The large cyst was the cause of the high CA-125. I did not have Ovarian Cancer.  
            

 
            But I struggle now to stay in that same acute awareness that comes when you get a call telling you to show up at the doctor’s office.  I struggle to stay in that crisp, red cheeked, apple-eyed truth that comes after a plane hits a twin tower.  I struggle to stay in the surprise of recognizing a loved one on a busy street or exiting an airplane.  The awareness of what is really important when you see a child born, or when you watch a loved one die, or when you attend a funeral. 
 
                I struggle to stay in the realization that for one week, the stranger that had become myself had surfaced again, and I saw my own patterns, I saw my fears.  But I also saw who I had loved, who I had helped, how I had lived and how hard I had tried.                
 
                And I loved myself more in the week I was dying, than I had in years.  
 
 

             I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how we can maintain what we know and who we become when we step into those moments of heightened awareness.  Perhaps it's too painful to stay in truth for too long, so we claim our bag of armor and shield ourselves from the sun?  But we know.   Even when we hide, we know.  We taste it, feel it, soul it. 

 

Highway CA-125. Yours to drive, anytime.

 

 watch: Wish Right Now

 

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Comments

Amazing - By Guest on Apr 27 2011
I have been struggling with some of these same issues. I desperately WANT to stay aware of the beauty and peace that life has to offer, yet I allow myself to get sucked into chaos and unappreciative thought.

Beautiful words. Thank you for sharing
Happy Birthday - By Guest on Jul 14 2011
Hey There. I wasn't sure if there was somewhere else to be able to leave a comment on this day, but I know it's your birthday so I just wanted to tell you Happy Birthday. I remember you from back in your days at Riverside, and I'm so happy to see how you have thrived and shared your light. I am also a breast cancer survivor, and know very well now about how precious each day is, and what a gift. Blessings to you and yours always, and a Very Happy Birthday to you! It seems kind of creepy to leave this and not say who I am so... I'll just say, if you think back, we first "met" by the Bell Tower, and I was making a Not Very Nice gesture about you. I guess some of us have a much longer way to grow than others. Thankfully, with the blessing of time, I have gotten over myself. : P If you ever wish to say "Hello", you can find me at: pa!nt#r614@hush.com *replace the "!" with an "i" and the "#" with an "e". If you don't write that's fine. Just know I always remember your birthday, and wish you well. : )
words to live by - By Guest on Aug 09 2011
This is my first time reading your blog, and wow! Thank you for being open and sharing your story. Your words are inspiring and a great reminder to live each day to its fullest!
Peace.
- By Guest on Jan 01 2012
I had a similar week last May when my nipple started bleeding after my mammogram. The same heightened awareness of life and its true meaning and beauty. I also felt exhilirating relief and gratitude when the ultrasound verdict was non-benign intraductal papilloma. Definitely a week that changed my life.
- By Guest on Feb 05 2013
Hi, beautiful writing! Have you ever read a book called "To Live Again" by Catherine Marshall?
Paris - By Guest on Feb 05 2013
Katherine,

I met you for the first time yesterday on House Hunters, you were looking for a flat in Paris. I watched the show because of two words \"Paris\", \"Screenwriter\", I was intrigued, a writer who dreams of living in Paris, what are the odds? ;) I wondered if you were \"real\" or just a television creation.

After checking your credits, reading your CV (production exec - to flower delivery person -to writer), I knew that you must be real. I\'ve walked this road, I was commodities trader - P.A. (a.k.a. Starbucks delivery person) - to writer.

As you know, our lives are stories. We turn to books and films to find other people with stories that touch us in some way, as we live the day to day creation of our life. Good stories remind us that life is beautiful. They help us negotiate the dark times, and they remind us that we are not alone. I have not known anyone with the unique \"cluster\" of hard times, which I have been staring down. Enter Katherine Fugate.

As I read about your \"week\" I am right there with you. I held my breath as I read your result, it was okay, there is hope. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and emotions with such honesty. Knowing that you made this journey, and came out on the other side has given me the strength to keep believing, keep walking, the next turn in the road might lead to something really wonderful like a beautiful flat in Paris!





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