By far, this column has been the most difficult one for me to write.
It’s not that there’s something that’s difficult for me to bring myself to share. After all, I’ve already shared details about my pubic hair tug-of-war, explosive diarrhea, heartburn, hemorrhoids and nipples.
This column is difficult because I don’t understand the questions I’m trying to write about. Or rather, I understand the questions, kind of, but have different answers to them every day. Sometimes every hour. You can understand then how it’s difficult to write this over the course of a week.
I stopped counting how many versions I wrote after the fourth.
Because it’s now past midnight and I’m amazingly sleepy and my editor needs something from me in less than 12 hours, this one is the last version. But it will be far from final. Even though I’m in the middle of this cancer crap and have been for nine months — so you could say I’ve got a fair amount of experience living with the disease now — I really don’t understand how this works. And by “this” I mean my inspirations, motivations and experiences navigating my new normal. And by “new normal” I mean life with cancer.
I do understand what got me started thinking about the question I’ve been pondering much of the week. I was hiking with a group of people and knew only one of them. The first several miles of the hike I walked with one of the women I had met in the car on the drive to the trailhead.
When people hear that my boyfriend Derek and I are living in Bend for seven weeks they either say, “Wow, what a great vacation,” or “Why?” This woman asked the latter. I could be cagey when people, especially strangers, ask why, but I’m not. (If they make a comment about ours being a great vacation, I don’t contradict them; we are having a totally great time in Bend.)
So she and I got into a whole talk about cancer and what I’d been through and how radiation was going and all that stuff. That was easy; I’ve repeated some version of My Cancer Story several dozens of times now.
My Cancer Story ended just as we reached the viewpoint that was our destination. On the way back, hiking partners switched up. I again found myself with someone I did not previously know. We had a lovely conversation about Derek’s and my vacation in Bend and I got some of her favorite restaurant recommendations.
About a mile or so before we were back at the cars, I again found myself with my first hiking partner. We didn’t start chatting about cancer, but about her supremely fit 13-year old Nordic-racing daughter.
But it came back to cancer. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” she asked. When someone asks me this, at least when it relates to cancer, I figure they’re asking because they have a friend or family member who has or had cancer and they don’t feel comfortable asking them. So I always say, “yes.”
“What’s your anchor?”
I answered with a blank stare.
“I mean, you’ve had some serious health problems, but you seem to be positive. What keeps you going?”
As I had never seriously thought about how I stay (mostly) positive, my answer remained a blank stare. I eventually got out a few trite, cliched phrases that didn’t even make sense to me.
I like to make sense.
Several days after being asked this, I went on a long solo hike. Since moving to Jackson at age 21, this has been my preferred activity for thinking. And it was her questions that were at the top of my list for thinking on … at least when I wasn’t cursing the trail’s 3-inch thick dust, volcanic sand and rolly lava rocks. Showering that night, I scrubbed my feet three times and still didn’t think them clean. When I get home from Bend I’m going to power wash the dust off all my gear, and myself.
Also, I spent 3 miles or so thinking about the ginormous burger buried under thick slabs of bacon and melted manchego cheese that I’d eat when I made it back to civilization. And the salted chocolate chip cookie I’d have for my first dessert. And the pecan bar that’d be second dessert.
But the vast majority of the hike was spent mulling over what it is that keeps me going.
Right now, cancer is not going to kill me, so I didn’t go over dramatic and think about what is keeping me going in terms of reasons for wanting to live.
Instead I thought about how, despite this royal piece of crap introduced to my life nine months ago, I am still mostly me. Cancer isn’t killing me (at least not right now), but it and the treatments for it could kill my spirit and the pleasure I get from life.
Since I was thinking about all of this while out on a huge, wonderful hike through an area I had never before been to — the same type of physical challenge I’ve loved doing my entire adult life — obviously cancer has not killed my enjoyment of life or my spirit.
It isn’t because of my deep faith in God. While I don’t not believe in a higher power, I don’t believe in one enough to credit her, him, with keeping my spirit alive and mostly positive the last nine months.
So it’s not religion.
And it’s not kids, since I don’t have any.
I do have the most amazing family and partner, Derek. My parents have been married for coming up on 50 years. When I moved away to college the only baggage I took with me was literal. Seriously. I left home with no emotional scars, at least not from family. (Of course there are high school scars.)
I have a younger brother. Growing up, well, he was my younger brother. My friends and I teased and tortured him (the year or so he wore orthodontic headgear we were particularly malicious). Still, today he has a perfect smile — headgear works! — and is one of the people I most admire and respect in the world. Now it’s my turn to look up to him.
And then there’s Derek, whom I love deeply for more reasons than I can count. And, even though he might sometimes get frustrated when I jump into things without planning, when I don’t always take the best care of gear or when I insist on “just so” furniture, carpets and artwork, he seems to understand these are all a part of me and loves me back nonetheless.
My friend Mariam. There aren’t even words to say how much she’s helped me get through this, from holding my hand and wiping away my tears before they could run down the side of my face and into my ears during my initial biopsies, to lying in bed with me and Derek — it wasn’t weird, I swear! — as my doctor, on speakerphone, first uttered the words “you have cancer.” I hyperventilated. Mariam pulled me into her with a hug stronger than a tractor beam.
In addition to their support and love these loved ones, instead of treating me with kid gloves, seeing me as a sick person instead of as Dina, saw me as me. They let and encouraged me to be me.
Derek and I love adventures and exploring and being outside and physically challenging ourselves. We did all of these things before cancer and we’re doing them all, albeit sometimes it’s now in a slightly modified way.
My parents are the ones who raised me with the curiosity and self-confidence to explore and seek out adventure and to be a woman capable of finding happiness within herself. I know they worry when I tell them now that I’m going out for an all-day hike, alone, on my 16th day of radiation, but they don’t tell me I shouldn’t.
When my brother came to help with one of my rounds of chemo during ski season, the day before chemo he let me drag him all over Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I remember that was the first day since my diagnosis that I managed to go a full hour without thinking about cancer.
All of these swirling thoughts didn’t coalesce into a solid answer to what keeps me going until nearly the end of my hike.
As I walked the last several miles back to the Lava Creek Trailhead in the Deschutes National Forest, the thick, bushy ponderosa pines and gnarled junipers along the trail glowed from the angle of the sun setting through a thick haze of smoke. Against the black and red lava flows they grew out of, the trees looked positively phosphorescent. And unbelievable.
Trees growing out of lava. Some were close to 50 feet tall. I poked around the bases of several. No dirt. They truly grew out of rock.
They made me think of the whitebark pines improbably living at 10,000 feet on the windiest Teton ridges. How? Why?
The answer I came up with about the trees resonated with me: A tree is a tree and it will always reach for the sky.