• Libby Coyner

Everyone Lives Through It Until Someone Doesn't

"Our encounter with cancer has rounded us off; it has smoothed and polished us like river rocks." - Siddhartha Mukherjee

Most days, I feel like my life got split into pieces: life before and life after cancer. But I got life after, and I don't take that lightly. Some people don't get that split, they just live and then they get cancer and they don't get a chance to rebuild after.

Even after cancer, it is everywhere in your life. You realize it's always been everywhere, but you're just more tuned in. The people you never knew had it who quietly confess it at a conference. The strangers you meet on the internet thanks to your secret internet cat group. The regimen of doctor's appointments you have to go to so it doesn't come back. Your reflection in the mirror, and how you work so hard to hide your broken body. The triggering way people on the news talk about health insurance in economic terms because they've never had to decide whether they had enough money left on the credit card to go in and check on why blood shows up in the toilet.

This week is full of reminders of that split in my life. The colonoscopy, this time at a Duke University Facility in Raleigh rather than the clinic across the street from a donut shop in Phoenix. This is my second colonoscopy - the first revealed the cancer.

I get a Facebook memory of a bike ride with WTF sometime before the cancer, before my backside got sewn shut and I used to spend hours on the bike. (Someday I will get back to that, I keep saying). It's this super-meta picture of me under Her Secret is Patience in Phoenix (a public art sculpture of nets over Civic Space Park), taking a picture of Her Secret Is Patience. WTF crew, please know that I still creep your rides on Facebook and wish I could be along for the Frybread picnic, for everything. I miss you most of all on these Thursday nights. Remember that first night of my diagnosis, there under Her Secret Is Patience? - you were the first ones I told about the cancer, and you held me in that perfect circle of love and support. I love you.

Everyone responds to cancer differently. My response is to convince everyone but mostly myself that I will be fine, that cancer treatment has come such a long way. I won't to die from what killed my grandfather. I am a lucky one. My surgeon used the word "curable" at my very first appointment. I eat up every word of Siddhartha Mukherjee's Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I am introduced to so many amazing strong women who are surviving, some of them beating all odds. And somehow it feels like cancer isn't going to win. Everyone is living through it.

Until someone doesn't.

I didn't know Liz except on the internet, through a ridiculous and amazing internet cat group who made Creamotherapy shirts and wore them across the country. Liz was a cat lady, too, and she was living with brain cancer. I didn't know all of the details of where she was in her process of treatment, and I didn't know things were so bad. I feel terrible for not checking in, supporting her. But then, I didn't know her that well, and I am sure she was leaning on her close circle. I can't claim grief over her passing as my own, because I didn't know her except through an internet cat group. She was really cute and had terrific style. She posted funny cat stuff on the internet. If we lived down the street from each other, we would have been friends. She was so young.

Days before, my 86 year old neighbor had invited me over to her house to get to know each other, and I'd told her I would. I am not in the mood, but go anyway. When she opens up the door and asked how I am, I just fall apart, and she holds me in this warm hug. Over tumblers of iced ginger ale, she and I learn that we have both survived cancer. Hers was in her neck just below her ear, and she talks about how her surgery killed so many nerves that she couldn't move one side of her face for many years. Like many who have decades between cancer and now, she shrugs it off as nothing.

I am excited to see Siddhartha Mukherjee speaking at Elon in six days. I am going with two of my favorite people, Linda and Chrystal. Linda has survived cancer twice, and we are letting Chrystal come along on the condition that she doesn't get cancer. Flipping back through Emperor of All Maladies, I can see that I took from it what I needed to at a time when I needed to believe everything would be fine. Now, I can see that perhaps he was more of a pragmatist than I initially thought. He writes, "I am not opposed to optimism, but I am fearful of the kind that comes from self-delusion."

I'm more realistic about things now. My self delusion may have been what got me through cancer before, so I'm not sure what will happen if it comes around again. Despite the heaviness, I am buoyed by another sweet friend I met on the internet via the cat group. Beautiful and amazing Astra who powered through unthinkable cancer complications in a hospital in Houston as Hurricane Harvey turned the city upside-down all around her, gets to go home today and sleep in her own bed for the first time in weeks. Today, she posts "after everything, I still believe this world is a beautiful place."

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