Yearlong Journey with "Frank"


I’ve made an effort to record my cancer reflections on my CaringBridge site and not here. Since this post acknowledges a kind of anniversary, I am making an exception to that practice.  Here’s what I posted there this morning.  

On December 26, 2013, I was in Barnes and Noble, browsing through clearance items, when I got a call from my internist whom I had recently seen for my annual physical.  He said that my blood-work included a result which made him think it was wise for me to see a hematologist-oncologist. Less than a month later, after seeing the oncologist a couple of times and having a battery of tests, the oncologist called me just as a Finance Committee meeting was ending. I stepped into a room near the meeting room, and looked out over the darkened surface of Oak Street while my doctor gave me test results and told me he needed to see me soon. The call lasted less than five minutes.  In that brief span of time, I moved, in Susan Sontag's words, from the "kingdom of the well" to the "kingdom of the sick."  My passport to the kingdom of the sick was stamped "cancer: multiple myeloma."

For almost a year, I have lived with this diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Early in the treatment process, I nicknamed this cancer "Frank," and began to relate to it/him in complex ways. The relationship was and is complex because he/it is not alien to me, but is part of me--a part that, to be sure, has gone wrong, but a part of me nonetheless.  It was hard from me to "hate" or "fight" Frank without feeling that I was "hating" and "fighting" my own body--hating and fighting myself. 

I learned that one of the insidious things about myeloma blood cells is that they cannot die, as healthy blood cells do, to make room for new cells. So, I began to relate to Frank as someone/something who needed the freedom to die. I know it sounds like a word-game, but it helped me immensely to think of my journey with Frank as a journey for liberation rather than for conquest--liberation for the cancer cells so that they were not cursed to be "the undead" and liberation of my body from those zombie-cells so that I could experience new life.

I also related to Frank as a demanding but effective teacher, from whom I have learned a great deal about suffering, fear, and grief; those challenging lessons have opened me to deeper experiences of compassion, love, and gratitude. Frank has pushed me to clarify what I trust about God. It's clearer to me now than it has ever been that God's love is stronger than anything which threatens us. Experience in some hard and harsh circumstances has convinced me that God's tender and sustaining love is steadily with us.  We are not alone.

The journey with Frank continues. Daily and monthly chemotherapy drugs, with their side-effects, keep him/it in front of me. I have to, and I get to, deal with him every day.  Right now, he has me enrolled in a course in vulnerability, a field of study I've dabbled in before but in which he has immersed me. It's important and challenging work, which I fear and hope won't ever let me be the same again. 

On Christmas Day, Dale Neal's account of my experience with cancer and faith ran in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Since then, there have been new readers of and commenters on this site. I am grateful for the generous expressions of support and offers of help. Across this year, I have been surrounded by the love and prayers of a vast community of encouragement which includes people whom I have never met. I am deeply thankful for all of you.

And, while I can't say that I am grateful for Frank, I can say that I am grateful for what I have learned and am learning in his company.