At the end of July 2020, I was diagnosed with stage 3 aggressive cancer. As of this week, I will have been receiving a very high dose of chemo (5 hours on the drip every 3 weeks) for 6 months, with 2 treatments to go. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was in a state of shock. As I was about to leave the oncologist’s office, I said to the doctor, “stage 3 is pretty bad, isn’t it?” He responded, “Well, it could have been stage 4.”
As I understand it, the prognosis for becoming cancer free for stages 1 and 2 is good, for stage 4 it is unlikely, while for stage 3, the chances are something like 50-50. Although my primary oncologist declines to make predictions, I was told by a junior doctor that with the type of cancer I have, my chances were about 40% that the surgery that would follow chemo would remove all of the cancer.
Despite the fact that my chances were less than 50-50, for the most part I remained optimistic that I would be one of the lucky ones. I have not suffered depression, nor have I been overcome with anxiety. Although my primary doctor and the others I have seen are not interested in discussing the effects of prayer, meditation, and visualization, to a one they have said that “attitude” makes a big difference.
I attribute my ability to remain optimistic to several factors. I am not afraid of death. I believe death is the ordinary ending of life. I do not expect life after death or rebirth. I do not fear judgment or punishment. I was present when my mother died and felt her embraced by love. I expect to experience this love when I die. I believe that in death I will be returned to the arms and body of the blessed mother who has sustained my life. Nonetheless, I am not ready to die.
I was much loved by my Christian Science grandmother, and though she did not practice Christian Science, my mother shared her mother’s belief that health is the natural state of the human body. Aside from measles, mumps, and chicken pox, my brothers and I were rarely sick and almost never went to the doctor. Throughout my life I have enjoyed robust health and excellent physical strength. Before my diagnosis I had not been prescribed any pills—not for blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, or any of the other common diseases that my friends have, nor have I been hospitalized since breaking my arm at age 13. Despite my diagnosis, I never felt that I was in the process of dying.
When my mother was diagnosed with what must have been stage 4 cancer 30 years ago, she told my brother she was going to fight her cancer as long as she could, but when “her time was up,” she intended to go quickly. And this is exactly what she did. My mother was burned by radiation and suffered from chemo, and neither treatment gave her any extra time. When her sister was diagnosed with cancer 2 years later, she refused treatment, saying that she preferred not to suffer as her sister had. I always imagined that if I got cancer, I might make the same choice.
Despite my suspicion of cancer treatments, I never once questioned my doctor, who is the best oncologist in Crete. I entered into a state of stoic passivity that served me well.
I was very sick at the time of my diagnosis, and it was to be expected that a very high dose of chemo would take a toll on my body. The first symptoms that I was not well were loss of appetite and loss of energy or stamina. I lost more than twenty pounds and had to force myself to eat. By time I was diagnosed, I had completely given up on unpacking the many boxes that were still strewn around my new apartment in Heraklion, following my move from Lesbos just two weeks before I fell ill. I spent most of August and September sleeping, resting, or staring at the sky and the flowers I managed to plant on my balconies.
Because I had water from the cancer pressing on all of my organs, there was literally no room for my stomach or intestines to function normally. I continued to suffer from lack of appetite and lack of energy, and also from constipation during the first months of treatment. These symptoms caused mild feelings of nausea and discomfort, which disappeared when the chemo reduced the water in my abdominal cavity. I began to have leg cramps that were treated with magnesium pills. I was lucky not to have severe pain or headaches. The chemotherapy is painless, but the day is long. I leave home in a taxi at 8:15 am and arrive home just before 7 pm. After chemo, I am more tired than usual for about a week, and then I have 2 better weeks.
About 2 months into the chemo, I fell 3 times in my apartment due to numbness caused by neuropathy in my right foot, which also led to balance problems. I began to use a shepherd’s cane decorated with ribbons and stopped walking outside my apartment without help. I had not been doing much walking anyway, due to lack of energy, so this was not a major change. I took advantage of a new treatment called the cold cap, and I did not lose my hair until recently. (The woman who administered it was absent during a treatment, and her replacement didn’t leave the cap on long enough.) I was disappointed, but I will get a wig.
In early October, I received a note from my tax preparer that the extension on my US taxes would end on October 15. The need to find and organize my tax information got me out of bed. Since then, I have made an effort to sleep normal hours, to write, and to finish unpacking and moving into my new home, with the help of my cleaning lady.
About that time, I had my first CT after three courses of chemo. The results were not good. The oncologist said that the chemo was working, but not as well as he had hoped. The surgeon told me that the radiologist who interpreted the CT wrote that there was cancer on the major vein that connects the stomach to the bowels. He wanted to get a second opinion, but if the reading was correct, the cancer on the vein would be inoperable.
The surgeon promised to get back to me quickly with the opinion of the second radiologist, but for some reason he did not. I was relieved at the delay, because I did not want bad news to be confirmed. I thought it unlikely that the radiologist had misread my results. I shifted from hoping to be one of the lucky ones, to hoping for a miracle. I opened myself fully to all of the healing prayers, energies, and meditations being sent to by my friends and readers of my books.
I still did not feel that I was in the process of dying, and for the most part, I was able to maintain an optimistic attitude. However, I would be lying if I said that I never worried that I might die without regaining my health. While working on the paper I had been asked by the director of the excavation team to write about religion in the Minoan village of Gournia, I became frustrated that I could not access all of the books and articles I needed online. I questioned whether I would be able to visit the Aegean Studies library in Pachia Ammos, Crete. When I was unpacking, I wondered if I would use all the beautiful china and silver I had accumulated again. When Christmas approached, I asked myself if would be worth it to buy a living tree, as I might not be alive in another year. Nonetheless, I worked on my paper, polished the silver for display in the china cabinet, and bought and decorated a large potted Christmas tree that is now on my balcony.
I had a second CT on December 1 and received the analysis on December 18. This time the results were extremely positive. There was no sign of cancer on the vein; the chemo was working well; the many small cancers on a soft tissue that are difficult to operate were reduced in size and fewer; and the cancer markers in my blood had gone from over 300 to 37. By the time of my next chemo, the blood markers were reduced to zero, which means that the cancer is inactive. One of my doctors told me that there is now a very good chance that the surgery (most probably in April) will be successful, and I will be cancer free. When I remarked that this news seemed like a miracle, she responded that it sometimes takes a while for the chemo to work. Nonetheless, I am certain that all of the loving energies being sent to me have played a crucial role in my healing. I am hopeful that the cancers in the soft tissue will be gone by the time of the surgery.
The good news is still sinking in. The fact that I no longer have thoughts that I might not be here in a few years, is a reminder that despite my optimism, I was afraid that I might die. It now seems likely that I will live. I thank the Goddess, my doctors, and my many friends, for this reason to hope. May it be so.
*Although the featured image is of a man taking chemo through his arm, it reflects my experience of sitting in a reclining chair, looking out at trees.
**Since my cancer diagnosis I have learned that many of my friends and colleagues have been on similar journeys, yet I didn’t know their stories. That is why I am sharing mine.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who lives in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.