She is fighting back tears. Something is the matter. Her adult daughter is spinning around the lobby trying to architect some semblance of normalcy. I learn from a few abbreviated sentences that the day’s plans have changed. I was there to accompany one of my dearest friends for her final chemo treatment. The infusion has been postponed. Her body isn’t ready. It needs a little more time. She apologizes to me for coming so far, for nothing. I am amazed at this positioning and am now even happier that I came. I drive her home. She exhales in the car. It is in our conversation there that I am given a huge gift. My task is simple. To try to understand it.
Theresa and I went to college together. We traveled through Europe with backpacks and Eurail passes after graduation. We’ve laughed and cried about bosses and no-show dates and shoes that no longer fit after pregnancy. We both lost parents to another form of cancer, multiple myeloma. She, her mom. Me, my dad. Her breast cancer diagnosis came out of no where. On a beautiful summer’s day…
In the car to Theresa’s home, she toggles back and forth between disbelief and assurance. Her assurance is rooted in the doctor’s upbeat demeanor, his statements about the tumor’s improving status. His optimism.
Her disbelief unravels all of this. How could the doctor step away from the treatment plan? “I don’t understand,” she repeats again and again.
The plan’s power is evident. The treatment plan is everything. It has governed virtually all decisions – large and small – for the past eight weeks. It is almost as if I hear her saying, ‘If we follow the treatment plan, everything will be alright.‘ The plan is the ballast, a surety within profound life-altering upset.
Today was supposed to be the last day. The gateway between chemo and being done with chemo. The great divide.
In the three-plus-hour ride home, I think about the treatment plan. I sit with it. My training in transition asks me to consider what I might learn from its presence.
I should tell you that I am no stranger to these plans. My sister, mother-in-law, and another close friend have battled breast cancer of late. Blessedly their treatment plans produced the desired outcome. Wellness.
I guess it isn’t so much the treatment plan that I think about but the struggle between disbelief and assurance.
Through this lens, I can see the treatment plan in a new light. It serves a larger role, a crucial function.
The treatment plan diverted everyone’s attention away from the terrifying uncertainty of the diagnosis. It gave us new vocabulary. It set expectations. It metered time. I could see the treatment plan as safety. A safe haven that stood in when conventional safety assumptions were suspended.
What constitutes safety for you?
I know I’ve asked that question before. Watching my friend process the disbelief and assurance loop challenged me to look deeper.
I think that achievement is my safety. By the way, I am exceptionally good at it. I’ve achieved and achieved and achieved. On the list are things like a Harvard MBA or starting a well-regarded company or working in a C suite role in a Fortune 500 or a publishing a book.
Yes, achievement seems to be my safety. But what is it distracting me from? What am I not willing to think about or look at or voice?
Transitioning has challenged me to ask different questions. When I started out, my questions were all about getting the right job to satisfy the demands of my personal and professional lives. Midway, transition became a process to foster my voice and live who I am at every moment. As I stand here today looking ahead to transition’s next cycle, the process is about removing the distractions that mute my ability to connect with others and with the world.
Today, I wish for Theresa a successful last chemo infusion and a speedy road to wellness. I wish for all of us an awareness of the distractions that may lead us astray and the courage to open our hearts to whatever we find there.
Everyone’s life is precious and beautiful and full of potential. May all of us – including those struggling with a challenging diagnosis – make choices that bring us closer to our fullest selves. Only in that moment will we be able to offer the world the gifts that it so desperately needs.
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