LeMay Family 2007 and 2020

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” – Nelson Mandela

Do you remember quotes? I usually don’t, but some version of that one has been on the tip of my tongue for decades. I’ve been afraid many times. Stepping onto a plane alone as an exchange student to Spain at 16 in 1985 (cellphone?! Not a thing yet). Showing up for my first day at MIT… so scared I suddenly couldn’t remember my social security number. Taking a left turn after grad school to work with McKinsey & Company in Chicago, knowing little more than profits = revenues – costs. Stepping out onto a TEDx stage to deliver 18-minutes straight from the heart…and from memory (gulp). Going on a ride-along with the Cleveland Police on a Friday night in the most statistically violent district of the city. Yeah, I was scared all of those times. But in every case, I knew the risk was worth it. I knew I would grow in ways I wanted. I chose those challenges and many more.

Getting diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 51 wasn’t like that. It was…well, devastating. I didn’t choose it. I didn’t want it. The challenge dawned on me more slowly than my husband. To be honest, I absorbed the truth watching him spring into action. Our response to fear is similar. We get to work…preparing, solving problems, making plans, etc. It’s a useful adaptation most of the time. With cancer in my own body, I needed some time for the shock to wear off. He carried me through that time. Back then and many times since, I would gladly have passed on this particular opportunity for growth.

Since then, I won’t pretend I haven’t been afraid or would rather not have cancer. Of course, I am. Of course, I would rather not. What I have come to appreciate, mostly in hindsight, is the way we humans have the capacity for moving through, over, and beyond fear. Over and over. It’s like surfing. Falling off. Kicking to the surface. Climbing back onto the board, and for some time – often too short, especially for us amateurs – riding the wave instead of drowning in it. That ride is a fun prize, resulting from hard work.

Like now. This is the end of what I’ve come to call “vacation week.” No chemo. No side effects. No new tests to understand. Looking back, we spent the first couple of chemo cycles figuring out how to manage that assault without the worst side effects. The next couple of cycles revealed why I got cancer and what will be important to sustaining my immune system and healing. All along, we have experienced life-affirming waves of love and support for our family and the sharing of new, powerful ways to heal. Spiritual growth in this journey is possible and profound.

We are encouraged by the progress of my body’s response to treatments, and we couldn’t be better supported by our healing team and their empathetic, encouraging comments. “You are the boss of chemo.” “You are already winning.” “You are making me a better doctor.” We know how rare it can be to have this kind of partnership, and we hang on all of these words.

Because the tricky thing about cancer is that “remission” can be hard to sustain. “Recovery” feels like a more accurate description of what lies ahead. For many, chemo is more of a reset than a cure, and regular scans and tests become part of the rest of our lives. CA125 (the typical marker for ovarian cancer) is notorious for false positives. More reassuring are leading indicators/“terrain markers”/measures of the body’s underlying health, strength of the immune system, and anticancer activity. There’s a lot we can do to recover or prevent cancer in the first place. Start here: Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, M.D.

Even as I sit on the positive “long tail of the distribution” of statistics for ovarian cancer so far, what we have learned from friends with cancer is that they do life differently after treatment. Recovery doesn’t end with a certain infusion, drug, test, or date. It’s a lifelong endeavor. And, just to put a big exclamation point on that truth, there is still a raging pandemic, political unrest, and racial awakening underscoring a big shift to something new which none of us can fully picture yet. Most of the time, I can see that’s all okay. It’s even better than okay.

I’ve been asking friends who went through cancer how they live without fear. You know what? They don’t. Fear is there, but they choose life. They make plans, anyway. They do work that is meaningful. They don’t put off taking vacations. They take better care of themselves physically and emotionally than before. They prioritize better how and with whom they spend time. Some of them even talk about yearning to recapture the quiet…of the cancer journey. The focus. The clarity about what is really important. The beautiful love and empathy offered all along the way. I have loved all of that too, and I don’t want to lose it either.

So, here I sit, at the end of “vacation week,” looking forward to stringing together more of these at some point in the future. I may be the boss of chemo, but it’s still a beast! We’re getting ready for chemo #6 of 6, after which there will be scans, tests, and plans for “recovery.” My body will tell us what else I need. Who knows, maybe the ongoing clinical-experiment-of-me might contribute to the knowledge of what some of the tests and scans really mean and how to stay in remission for decades. I hope so. What I know for sure is that recovery will be my focus for the rest of my life. Maybe it’s like alcoholism in that way. Similar to friends in AA, I’ve been buoyed time and again by the support and encouragement of understanding people near and far. The work is to be ever vigilant but not paralyzed. In many ways, focusing on recovery is liberating and one of the most important things we can practice whether faced with a cancer diagnosis, a pandemic, or anything that makes us afraid…including more ordinary changes at work and at home.

Recovering from cancer is a chance to choose life over fear, again and again.

No doubt, there will be fear. Life is vulnerable and living can be traumatic, whether cancer is ever a part of it or not. But, once you find you can kick up to the surface of the water, get back on the surfboard, and ride again and again, there is also fun, appreciation, exhilaration, and joy. Chemo cycles have been a strange but constant practice of just that. That kind of resilience resides inside all of us, but don’t fool yourself into thinking we do all of that alone. Resilience is powered by empathy. Empathy helps us move through the fear of change together, whether it’s a devastating diagnosis or loss that marks life before and life after, or something less dramatic. Empathic connection is a lifesaver when the water is too choppy to swim on your own…and you feel as if you’re drowning. Empathy provides oxygen when your own supply runs short. Then, you kick. You get to the surface and take a sweet breath. You move through the fear and choose life, again.

Here’s a song about it: Swim, by Jack’s Mannequin*. Lyrics below.

That’s exactly what I’ll do. I’m grateful for smart, empathetic, and kind doctors/healers/nutritionists who practice whole-body science and trust their patients’ intuition. I’m grateful for the broad and deep support of friends and family, near and far. I’m grateful to ovarian cancer survivors who reassure and inspire. Most of all, I’m grateful for the bottomless pitch-perfect empathy and love of John, Sophie, and Grant LeMay (Rocky too) with whom I look forward to sharing many more “vacation weeks,” fun, and joy in the years to come. And thanks to all of you for throwing me the lifesavers of prayer, encouragement, and more. I’ll be kicking up to the surface, over and over…working for the chance to ride the waves.

LeMay Familly 2017

“Corny as it sounds, what I’m really interested in is the human spirit—in how people react to stress and adversity. I’m fascinated by the way people fight back, by how they keep fighting their way to the surface.” – Dr. Mark Renneker, family-practice physician, MCAS-cancer expert, and serious surfer

***

Thanks to Stephen Cutri for wonderful family pictures, 2007 and 2020.

Thanks to John LeMay for edits to this post, and everything. As Eliza sings in Hamilton, “I’m not afraid. I know who I married.” Thanks to our teenage kids, Sophie and Grant LeMay, for always injecting life, humor, and the best reasons to kick to the surface.

Thanks to Dr. Stephen Waggoner, Dr. Keith Block (also a serious surfer!), Michelle Gerenscer, M.S. and integrative nutritionist, and Dr. Mark Dabagia for outstanding, empathic care and advice.

*Thanks to Tori Obermeier, MT-BC ~ Music Therapist-Board Certified, for another perfect song, right on time. How does she do it?! Thanks also to Barbara DiScenna, art therapist, whose collaborative work with Tori and me provided the first inspiration for the surfing metaphor. #Synchronicity

For more on how empathy can help us build a better world, check out Jackie’s book: Currency of Empathy – The Secret to Thriving in Business and Life

***

Lyrics for “Swim,” by Jack’s Mannequin

You gotta swim
Swim for your life
Swim for the music
That saves you
When you’re not so sure you’ll survive
You gotta swim
Swim when it hurts
The whole world is watching
You haven’t come this far
To fall off the earth

The currents will pull you
Away from your love
Just keep your head above

I found a tidal wave
Begging to tear down the door
Memories like bullets
They fired at me from a gun
Cracking me open now
I swim to brighter days
Despite the absence of sun
Choking on saltwater
I’m not giving in
You gotta swim

You gotta swim
For nights that won’t end
Swim for your family
Your lovers your sisters
Your brothers your friends
You gotta swim
For wars without cause
Swim for these lost politicians
Who don’t see their greed is a flaw

The currents will pull us
Away from our love
Just keep your head above

I found a tidal wave
Begging to tear down the door
Memories like bullets
They fired at me from a gun
Cracking me open now
I swim to brighter days
In spite of the absence of sun
Choking on saltwater
I’m not giving in
I’m not giving in
Swim

You gotta swim
Swim in the dark
There’s an ocean to drift in
Feel the tide shifting away from this war
Yeah you gotta swim
Don’t let yourself sink
Just follow the horizon
I promise you it’s not as far as you think

Currents will drag us away from our love
Just keep your head above
Just keep your head above
Swim
Just keep your head above
Swim
Just keep your head above
Swim

Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: Andrew Ross Mcmahon
Swim lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

 

THE CURRENCY OF EMPATHY®
An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

THE CURRENCY OF EMPATHY®

An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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