By Clare Buie Chaney
How Sweet This Perspective Is!
“There is never enough time to do or say all the things we would wish. The thing is to try to do as much as you can with the time that you have. Time is short and suddenly you’re not there any more.” A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
CRISIS: On August 18, 1987, I pulled up in my driveway to see my doctor sitting on my front porch swing. I plopped down beside him, puzzled by his presence. He then began a stream of tenderly spoken words that kicked me sharply in the face. Dazed, I managed to eke out, “thank you for coming here to tell me.”
More words followed, but I wasn’t there for them. I was drowning in the echo of the “C” word—cancer. Finally, I said, “Is there a cure?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long do I have to live?”
“Let’s step inside.” We did. He took my hands in his, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t know how long you have to live.”
HEARTBREAK: Then, the tidal wave of tears began. First me, then Cal, Mom and Dad, my family, and my friends. We had to cry together. Then, we had to cry separately—in closets, bathrooms, wherever and whatever hour we could find privacy. Pain, shock, denial, anger, negotiation, despair, acceptance—I’ve felt it all. There was a phase of “Why me? It’s not fair. I’ve led a basically good life. I just don’t deserve this. I have a husband and a (then) one and a four-year old. They need me. The whole thing stinks!”
PERSEVERANCE: Amid all this chaos, friends and family kept saying, “You can fight this thing and beat it.” But cancer seemed so frightening and overpowering. The word still stuck in my throat. There I was at rock bottom, feeling so sorry for myself, when I realized I had a choice: bite the bullet or bite the dust. I recall that as a child I had a broken leg while horseback riding. After hospitalization, complications, a wheelchair and crutches, my parents taught me it was critical to get back on the horse and face my fears. Before giving in to it all, I decided to negotiate the situation. I was back in the saddle again.
Then I did what any other self-respecting, obsessive-compulsive, Type A personality would do. I devised a strategic battle plan for conquering “the monster within.” I worked from the premise, if it can’t hurt you and it might help, go for it.
That’s when the tragedy stopped and the adventure began.
ADVENTURE: I read everything I could get my hands on. I knew that treatment was life-threatening in itself; the initial odds I received were a 50% chance to survive the bone marrow transplant procedure. Since patients who receive transplants within a year of diagnosis have a better prognosis, I decided to take interferon for 10 months and then go ahead with it.
I crammed 40 years of living into those ten months. First, I focused on family and friends—my social side. I vacationed in Mexico with them, went to Disney World with Cal and our children, reunited with longtime buddies and enjoyed a “hugging party.” I laughed until my sides ached, cried until my eyes swelled, and spoke tender words that are too often left unsaid. I shared agonies, ecstasies, and coping techniques with other patients with cancer at Baylor’s self-help support group. I understand why someone once observed, “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time on my business.’” Loved ones are everything.
Besides all the relating, I ate my fill of healthy food, got ample sleep, exercised with Jane Fonda, and listened to visualization, imaging and relaxation tapes.
Conquering my mind was another challenge. I broke my strategy down into four areas:
Interpretation: It’s not just what’s happening to me, it’s how I interpret and respond to it. Do I have a 50% chance of disaster or a 50% chance to live?
Control: I studied all the options I did have and prioritized.
Positive self-talk: I acknowledged my negative thoughts and then tried to replace them with optimistic, constructive, yet realistic ones.
Sense of purpose: Like Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else. I reaffirmed worthwhile goals: have fun, help others, learn something new, and emphasize motherhood. I developed courage, guts, grit, nerve, gumption, chutzpah, and intestinal fortitude. It’s the belief that you can do what you feel you can’t do.
Finally, I dealt with my spiritual side. Someone said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When facing a crisis, it’s natural to do some philosophical and theological soul searching. Though there were no easy answers to my questions, by reaffirming my faith, I derived intense comfort from a strong sense of being cradled in God’s everlasting arms during some of my most terrifying moments.
Before I left for the transplant facility in Seattle, I spent a beautiful weekend in Galveston with Cal and the children, which included mud fights on the beach and heartbreaking embraces as we parted. The kids went to Abilene to visit my in-laws while Cal spent six weeks of the most critical period with me. My donor brother Bubba stayed a month; my parents were there the entire four months.
I stayed afloat by attempting my coping strategies and enjoying personal visits, cards, letters, phone calls, touching gifts, and wacky gimmicks initiated by friends. One of these was a 4×6 foot colossalgram proclaiming “Even bald, Texas women are beautiful.” I resorted to a few zany antics myself. One day I put up a poster in my window facing the street that read, “Help! I’m a prisoner in a laminar airflow unit!”
PERSPECTIVE: Today I’ve resumed a normal life. I’ve had to call on strengths that I didn’t know I had. Now there is more empathy, openness, honesty, contentment, toughness and perspective. I’ve learned that life is fragile. But, in spite of the pain and the buckets of tears that were shed, my cancer crisis has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I am now more fully aware and appreciative of the full gamut of life, and I’ve found new dimensions in myself.
I savor and cherish every moment. I smell the grass when I cut it, bask in the feel of the sun on my face, and watch ants and clouds go by. I actually enjoyed driving in a carpool and even reveled in the earsplitting cacophony of my kids’ occasional tantrums, back then,—all priceless events, precious gifts of wonder. Life is now more three-dimensional, and as the artist Uccello exclaimed, “Oh, what a sweet thing this perspective is!”
Now more than ever, I heed Dickens’ admonition from A Christmas Carol: “There is never enough time to do or say all the things we would wish. The thing is to try to do as much as you can with the time that you have. Time is short and suddenly you’re not there any more.”
First published in Silver Linings: The Other Side of Cancer. Updated and reprinted, with permission
“Live your life for something bigger than YOUR life.” Origin Unknown
Clare Buie Chaney, Ph.D., says her greatest passion is to affect changes “that do the greatest good for the greater good.” She has manifested her mission through myriad projects for the arts, historic neighborhood preservation, women’s issues, and physical, mental and spiritual health. But, after fighting her own battles, Clare, perhaps, has had her greatest impact. When she beat leukemia in the 1980s (a rare and arduous achievement,) she dedicated herself to survivorship, giving emphasis to cancer patients and their families in both her practice and volunteer life. She became a sought-after speaker on “The Healing Power of Laughter,” “Slaying Dragons: A Perspective on Cancer and Life,” “Caring for the Caregiver” and other supportive topics. She has shared her personal and professional expertise with Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, the Texas Cancer Council stage agency board, the Junior League of Dallas, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Gilda’s Club, American Red Cross and more. In October 2014, Clare began the battle again, this time, with Stage 3 breast cancer. She began nine months of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation; chairs the 2014 Each Moment Matters Luncheon; continued her practice; and, with her husband, Cal, toasted both of their sons, Clark and Brent at their weddings. “I feel that God isn’t finished with me yet,” she says. “Therefore, I will still continue finding opportunities to enjoy meaningful ways to live out God’s purposes for me, which include having fun, helping others and learning more about everything in God’s creation