Being part of the community is one of the values my school holds, and as a result, students from our school are involved in local business happenings, races and sporting events as well as various celebrations held in town. Up the road from my school is a cancer center, and massage therapy students have been recruited to provide chair massage as part of a cancer survivors celebration. I have volunteered.
It’s been almost twenty-four years since my mother died of cancer. It was an awful process that took three years to end her life. It started with a loose tooth. Unknown at the time, she had cancer in her maxilla. The surgery removed half of her upper teeth as well as half of the hard and soft palates and the cheek bone up to the lower orbit of the eye. A year and a half later cancer was discovered in her lumbar spine. A few months after that it was found on her optic nerve. Shortly after that her eye was surgically removed due to complications caused by the cancer. Then the tumor grew from her eye socket. Then the cancer spread to her brain. Four months later she was dead.
I remember the day my mother called to tell me of her diagnosis. I needed to take a walk to process what I had just heard. As I started down the sidewalk I suddenly found myself frozen, unsure if the concrete of the sidewalk would hold me up. In that moment I was unsure if anything I had ever believed to be factual had integrity. I just couldn’t imagine a world where the body that had given life to mine was turning on itself and causing its own destruction.
My mother’s cancer case was well known within the medical community because of the aggressiveness of the disease and horrific destruction it caused to her face. The doctor that has performed the maxillectomy had done ground breaking reconstructive surgery. The oncologists that provided chemotherapy and radiation were stumped at the cancer’s unresponsiveness to standard treatment protocols and were doing what amounted to experimenting to get results. Cancer is an awful thing anyway, but my mother’s cancer made a name for itself. When pursuing our own minor health issues, such as dental work or eye exams, doctors knew of my family because of my mother, and sympathy was always extended (this was pre-HIPAA).
During those three years of her illness many hours were spent in waiting rooms at hospitals, the many doctors’ offices and the cancer centers. There is an ache in my body that lingers even now when I recall those times. When a loved one has cancer, the outpouring of care and praying and energy given to the one with the disease is amazing to behold. As the one accompanying someone walking the path of cancer, there was little to no acknowledgement of the silent suffering. I was able to find a couple of support groups for families of cancer patients, but when I shared my family’s travails, people were speechless. The last thing I wanted was to be a killjoy at a support group so I stopped going. Ultimately, I managed my grief the best I knew how and provided support to my family the best I could.
The day I was to go to the cancer center to provide chair massage was a beautiful, sunny day with a bit of crispness in the air. As I approached the cancer center I was struck by its lovely appearance. It is a modern building of stone and glass set back from the road in a patch of woods. I parked my car and went to the back to get my massage chair. As I headed for the center’s front door I was hit with a wave of nausea. I felt a dry heave coming on. I was blindsided by this visceral response. I stood stunned for a moment trying to get a handle on myself. I could not let this happen. I looked down at the massage chair in my hand. I saw the royal blue shirt I was wearing that is my school uniform. I probed my mental processes looking for a way out of my building anxiety, and I found one. I took a breath and declared that today I am a massage therapist in the making, today I will give comfort to those who come for my services, and today I will not be a victim of cancer. The nausea passed, and although I felt shaky I entered the building with a smile.
This was a cancer survivors’ event, and the people that came to the cancer center’s event were former patients and their family members. The atmosphere was buoyant and lively. It truly was a celebration. For three hours I along with two other massage therapists provided ten minute chair massages to these people. Their energy and joy were palpable. Their stories were delightful tales of the indignity of sickness, triumph of recovery and circumstances surrounding both. There were stories of daughters who became doctors, sons who cooked beautiful meals, children who made art, husbands who bought boats and cut wood. There were dogs that were constant gentle companions, and cats that were savage hunters when not quietly napping on the sofa. There were endless tales of living. Living that had become so important and sweet and savored.
At the end of the event as I walked back to my car I was aware of how different I felt from when I had first arrived. Although my body was feeling the effects of having given chair massages for the past three hours, my spirit was completely uplifted and energized. I watched the last few of the survivors leave as I loaded my car. My mind lit briefly on those who hadn’t survived, and I asked a blessing on those families. I realized I was part of the latter group – the family of one who hadn’t survived. But today would make things different for me. Today I changed my story. True, the original details of my mother’s ordeal and death were still there, but I’ve provided an addendum to my tale, and it goes like this. . .
And many years later when I was in massage school, I touched the bodies of those who faced cancer and won the battle. I felt the life in their bodies and was moved and inspired by their resilience. And because they lived their horror with dignity and humor and have so brilliantly chosen to live life restored, I have, too.
Image courtesy of RyanHoyme.com