“Grit is the stubborn refusal to quit.” – Jonah Lehrer
We tend to think of life as a journey that takes us through many hills and valleys as we travel from cradle to grave.
But lived up close on a day-to-day basis, life often feels like a series of mini-journeys that test our faith, endurance and stamina. The grit we show during each of these mini-journeys is what enables us to get over the hill and keep going to the next leg.
I just completed such a mini-journey in my own life. It was a six-year journey with a clear beginning and ending, and it tested me big time, but with the help of my family and friends, along with a lot of determination, I got through it and I am stronger and more empathic for having gone through it.
The mini-journey began a few days before Christmas of 2012 when, at the urging of a colleague at work, I went in for my first routine colonoscopy. I had been putting this off because, well, who wants to go in for a colonoscopy? Everything was working fine down there, I was a busy working guy and this was a hassle and inconvenience.
But I went in and got the test, fully expecting to be told afterward that everything was fine and come back in ten years for your next roto-rooter. But when I woke up from the anesthesia, the gastroenterologist asked me to step into a private room for a chat.
It was a good thing I had come in, he told me with grave face. During the scope he had found an overgrown polyp in my lower right descending colon. More testing would be done, but he was certain from the looks of it that the polyp was cancerous.
To be told that you have cancer is like being yanked out of your comfy seat in a movie theater and taken behind the curtain to be shown the scaffolds and props and wires that go into making the movie of your life, and you realize the show could end at any moment if any of this machinery stops working. When you walk back into the theater of your life, everything is different. The illusion is broken. You are aware of your own mortality. How fragile this string of life is.
So began my cancer journey. Tests, CAT scans, doctor visits, consultations with specialists. The gastroenterologist’s hunch was right, of course, and at the end of January, six years ago, I had colon resection surgery, which was one of the scariest things I’ve ever gone through. I’d had plenty of surgeries and procedures in my life to this point, but being operated on internally is a whole different ballgame.
The surgery went smoothly and the good news was that my cancer hadn’t spread to other organs. However, two of the fifteen lymph nodes taken out during the procedure tested positive, and so four weeks later, I started six months of chemotherapy.
Now, I knew nothing about chemotherapy and what it involved other than it sounded nasty. I soon found out just how nasty it is. I was someone who always placed a priority on eating well and taking care of my body, and here I was sitting in a chair having poisons pumped into my veins.
Chemo is a human endurance test. It tests you physically, mentally, spiritually. It takes everything out of you and asks whether you have anything more to give.
It also opens you up to others’ suffering. As I sat there in that infusion room every other Friday, I had a chance to speak with a lot of other chemo patients about their cancer journeys. For many of them, this was their third or fourth round of chemo. Some were battling some dire odds, stage 4 stuff involving their lungs and livers. I felt my heart melting to the collective suffering in that room.
But I was also stirred by the bravery and determination I saw. The human spirit is an amazing thing, and that room was filled with it. It inspired me and gave me the strength to keep coming in for treatments when I knew how lousy I was going to feel.
One of the things I learned about chemo is that different cancers are treated with different cocktails of poison. Mine didn’t make me lose my hair. It just made me feel tired and worn down, not wanting to eat, not wanting to do anything, the way you feel when you’re battling a virus. The worst part for me was having to go home with an infusion ball tied into a port in my chest, having to wear that awful thing for two days, having to sleep with it at night – until at last the nurse came to the house on Sunday morning to take it out.
That’s when I really started feeling crappy. Mondays were the worst – all I could do was lie in bed. Tuesdays weren’t much better. By Wednesday I was starting to feel a little better. The people at the office were great. They understood what I was going through and appreciated how hard I was trying to keep up with my work. Even the CEO would stop by my office to check in on me and see how I was doing.
When you have cancer, you also find out that there are some really, really wonderful people out there – warm, caring people with generous hearts and souls. They come out of the woodwork when they find out you’re battling the big “C.” You see the essential goodness of humanity that’s often so hard to find in a world of partisan bickering and angry politics.
After six months of treatments, the journey went on. Quarterly check-up visits with the oncologist. Annual CAT scans. Follow-up colonoscopies. The protocol for treating each type of cancer is different based on the science behind it. Mine was a five-year plan. Each year that passed without recurrence increased the odds of my success and survival. In the meantime, you hold your breath and pray that the chemo got all of those stray mutant cells. You learn to live with uncertainty.
This past December, I had my fifth and final CAT scan, as well as my fourth colonoscopy in six years. A few days before Christmas, I went in to see my oncologist, who gave me the good news.
Everything was clear. I was done. No more CAT scans. I would need only to come back once a year for a checkup and go back every three to four years for a colonoscopy. But otherwise, I was done.
I had passed the test. This mini-journey was over. I now have the right to call myself a cancer survivor.
The thing about mini-journeys is that when you successfully complete one, you’re in a different place than when you started. You have a new vantage. You are able to look back and see the terrain you’ve walked. You can see it in perspective. You can give it a name.
In that way, life becomes a series of named mini-journeys. My high school journey. My college journey. My marriage journey. My divorce journey. My cancer journey.
All of these mini-journeys give the bigger journey richness and depth. When we get to the end of life, you can look back and see the full multi-colored journey of adventures and trials, and know you made it.
You did it. You’ve run the race, fought the good fight, and now you’re ready for the next journey, and it will all the more glorious for the one you’ve just completed.
James Kerr writes on men’s spirituality and the life of the “inner warrior” in his blog A Peaceable Man.