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“I don’t think you understand me. You’re going to be undergoing chemotherapy,” my oncologist stressed to me, while peering over her glasses.
I don’t think you understand me and how important it is that I take this trip, how important it is I don’t give up who Courtney is just because I have breast cancer, I thought.
What I said was:
“While I respect that, I am asking you to understand that while I am battling breast cancer, I am also battling mental health issues. Traveling stirs my soul and gives me the fuel I need to keep going. I understand there is a risk, but I also understand that you need my consent to begin treatment. I am going to delay consent for another week so that the side affects don’t interfere with my trip.”
If I had never truly advocated for myself in my life, this made up for it, I was sure.
Her hard face softened and she gave me a slight smile. “Well played.”
I smiled back. I am going to Costa Rica, and I am going to see the birds, I thought.
There are a lot of ways you can drown a human, and some of them don’t even include water. My first and strongest example of this would be cancer.
When people think of cancer, they think of death. It’s a natural reaction for some of us survivors to make the connection between cancer and a death sentence when we are first diagnosed.
What we begin to realize is that the congruity of cancer and death is not necessarily an issue of mortality, but sometimes the death of an activity, of things we love, of people we love who just “can’t handle” the fact that we are sick. (By the way, that is probably the worst thing you can say to someone who has no choice but to deal with the fact that they are sick.)
Just like when the “death” card is pulled in a tarot reading, we look at what card is next to us and decide what will come to pass in our lives, without automatically assuming that we are going to be the one to die.
My second example of how you can drown a human without water would be chemotherapy.
Traveling outside of the country is unheard of to many people—let alone by yourself, or as a woman, or as a cancer patient. Throughout my life, I had always silently (although sometimes quite loudly) thought the odds were stacked against me, but chemo was an entirely new playing field for me. This was a serious infliction upon my body, my mental health, my very life—and I was risking it all for…travel? Even just for three days?
Well, sounds about right.
For someone who has been through a lot of trauma, adrenaline, adventure, and strong positive stimuli can be the best prescription to force you into the present moment.
When you have cancer, you are fighting for your life, and when you are fighting for your life, some may think that shark diving is incongruous to the goal you have to save your life, but for me, it aligned perfectly. Being around great predators would serve as a great totem to me during this time.
During my first dive, I am admittedly nervous. Now two treatments deep into chemotherapy, my concern is not that I’ve lost all my hair but that I get short of breath walking up a flight of stairs. How much more difficult was it going to be breathing with such limitation, my body under the pressure of so much water around me? I think about this as my dive instructor deflates my vest and I go under, still trying to adjust to the restricted amount of air I am getting through my chamber.
But as every diver knows, once you are underwater, you are in a different world—one that you can’t explain unless you have seen it. Being submerged in that as I am being lowered into the water shocks me in to the present. Everything that you’d see on land is now of the same or even greater magnitude, just completely submerged in water, and the added element is that it feels like you are flying above it all.
The equalization process is more painful than I remember, even on my first-ever dive—a cage-less, shark-feed/dive in Holmes Reef, Australia—intensified by the sensitivity my body suffers through due to chemotherapy. My dive instructor pauses at least every 30 seconds so I can suffer through popping my ears, and we descend perhaps not even another foot before I have to do it again, all the while concentrating on my breath and ensuring I don’t have an asthma attack.
Cancer is interesting in that it allows you to have a more intimate experience with just about everyone you meet. When you don’t have hair, people tend to see you as more of a person, strangely. Diving is already an intimate experience because should anything happen to you underwater, you are trusting someone with your life; but diving as a cancer patient intensifies that tandem experience. Although I had some intense negative things present in my body at that time, like shortness of breath and constant discomfort under water, I quickly realized that it’s true what they say: what happens in the mind is far more powerful than what happens to the body.
What was happening in my mind was the registration of positive stimuli that brought me where I needed to be: present without reservation, completely immersed not just in the ocean but in all the life in it that was gliding right by.
We see eels, octopus, eagle rays, turtles, starfish, and so much more. We swim over a channel of sharks, then see a 13-foot-long manta ray.
When I see her, I involuntarily stop breathing due to shock. When I realize that I’ve stopped breathing, I try to make myself, but I cannot. I begin to panic internally, fighting my mind for the oxygen my body needs. I lose focus and I cannot see. I shut my eyes tight and will myself a deep breath, but the air doesn’t come.
I open my eyes, stop fighting, and watch the manta ray, willing her effortless glide to calm me. My body relaxes and I gasp in such a way that my lungs fill with air without restriction. I am breathing—slow, steady, and calm. I blink continuously and she is still there., infantile and bald. I see her, I reach toward her, never having felt such wonder or longing.
I look right up into her fins, her underbelly, and demand of myself:
“Remember how this feels. Don’t let the fog of the chemo, or the cancer, ever, ever take this from you.”
I spread my arms out like her fins, wide open and twisting and turning around in the ocean, reaching, reaching, reaching in that big, great blue. And I swim right along with her.
Later, I was told by the instructors that manta ray season has passed, and they didn’t know why this one had hung back. Divers search for months to see a manta ray, even when in season, and do not find them. “They’re like our unicorns,” he had said.
Seeing something so expansive, so grand, just out in front of you in the ocean will certainly take your breath away—an added bonus if you somehow weren’t doing it effectively in the first place—but will also teach you how to catch your breath and breathe correctly.
I went to Costa Rica to see the birds and I ended up underwater.
This was actually a perfect metaphor for my life: finally reaching the perfect sweet-spot life balance of work and travel, then getting sick.
I wanted to see birds vibrant in color, soaring brilliantly and effortlessly, but ended up swimming with sharks and a manta ray. I had imagined that if I could just be strong enough, I could hone some of that energy birds so freely give to all of the skies, and make it out of this journey just as unscathed and delicate. If I could do that, then maybe as a woman who always crash-coursed her way through life—messy and wild—I could come out of this with some semblance of grace.
I ended up swimming with sharks and a manta ray: animals not necessarily known for their elegance and fluidity. The first, for their superiority and power over what happens to them and the need to fight for what they want, and the latter for adaptability to deep waters, maintaining composure, recreating life, and allowing others to assist us in that process.
I also got a primal lesson in learning how to breathe through things, but the main take-away message was loud and clear:
Keep fighting, and win this fight. Never let life or circumstances tell you that you can’t do something, that you shouldn’t do something, that you’re too sick.
It was telling me to live.