In 2012 I lost one of my best friends to cancer. Sharon was only forty-two years old, and left behind an amazing husband and two young kids. It happened fast. In May she was healthy, driving up to Los Angeles to take me out for my birthday. By August it had metastasized to her liver and bones, and by the following March, we’d lost her. It changes you, to watch a mother slowly leave her children, to watch a family lose a daughter, a sister, a wife.
I’ve always been a fearful person, but from that point forward, cancer became my biggest fear. I worried about what would happen to my kids if something like that were to ever happen to me. Most of the time, I could keep it in check. We had no family history. I was healthy. I ate well. I exercised. I was certainly not a high-risk candidate. I shoved that fear aside, piling it in the corner alongside my other irrational fears about fires, earthquakes and kidnappers.
But what do you do when your biggest fear becomes a reality? When the monster under the bed turns out to be real?
Those old fears seem flimsy in comparison.
Fear is a phone call from your doctor, telling you it’s cancer. It’s having to parent your young children with the same level of energy and enthusiasm you usually have, while inside you’re wondering whether you’ll even be around a year from now.
Fear is sitting across from Sharon’s husband, who promises that her outcome won’t be yours, and the guilt that goes along with knowing that you’re here and she’s not, that you can still kiss your children goodnight, and she can’t. Fear is wondering how many more nighttime kisses you’ll be able to give.
The two weeks I spent between diagnosis and staging were dark. I don’t recall the minutes at all. I don’t remember what I ate, or how I got through the day. I don’t remember what I read or who I spent time with. I don’t remember any of it. I just remember the waiting. The fear.
There is a quote my friend, Susan, sent me shortly after my diagnosis: Fear is the obstacle of where you are now, and where God wants you to be. Whatever your beliefs, you set yourself right with God and the universe incredibly fast when you’re no longer sure you’re going to be a part of it.
But you also learn how to embrace it. I had to find a way to accept that things might not work out, and that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. There’s an incredible amount of peace when you stop resisting what’s happening to you, and just accept that this is the story you’re living, and it might not end the way you want it to.
When you’ve lived inside that space for any amount of time—an hour, a month, a year—it changes the way you view the world. You’re not so quick to label an experience as scary because the bar with which you measure that has changed.
People call me a survivor and I cringe. I hate that word. Survivor means it’s over. You can survive a car crash, or an earthquake. But with cancer, it’s never truly over. You never stop waiting, wondering whether it will come back like it did with Sharon. And that’s why you have to set a place at the table for fear. Because once it moves into your life, it doesn’t ever leave. Not really. You might laugh with friends, tackle a tough project at work, or grocery shop with your children, but it still follows you like a shadow. Some days you can barely see it. Other days, it’s impossible to ignore. You pay attention to the calendar. You count the months, then you count the years. It whispers to you when you get impatient with your kids, warning you to be grateful.
This is what fear teaches you: That you can do impossibly hard things. That it’s the small moments that are worth your time–letting your youngest stay up late enough to look at the stars, watching a butterfly float through the air, singing a lullaby in the dark while holding a still-sticky hand. Fear can crystalize your priorities, and make you appreciate the tiniest things, if only because, for a little while, you believed your time with them was almost up.