From April 11, 2020
Dear Friends --
If you had told me three weeks ago there would be a run on flour in Menlo Park, I would have thought you were bananas. And speaking of bananas, I've now made three loaves of chocolate chip banana bread here in my Covid cave. My freezer is full of delicious carbs. Those pants without zippers do come in handy for so many of life's different chapters.
So here we are -- the Saturday between the crush of Good Friday and the glorious miracle of Easter. The mysterious in between. It's also the end of our 40 days of beauty expedition, and I have some beautiful news to end this Lenten leg of our shared trek.
We're going to get into a little cancer play by play here, so bear with me as I unpack some of the nitty gritty. Some of you might want to get comfy and pour yourself a cocktail for this post.
Ok for those close to the trek, you'll remember that in recent weeks my story has been all about the activity in my lungs, even as we hoped and prayed cancer would stay quiet where it all began in my abdomen. Important April scans, originally scheduled for next week, would show us the latest, and determine the next path to take.
Through a surprise turn of events, I ended up getting scans two days ago in advance of a key follow up visit with our favorite surgeon in the story -- the ever fabulous Dr. V. I knew these scans would be as crucial as any I've had; for the first time since January we'd see if there were even a speck of activity in my liver or colon, or the surrounding neighborhood. We'd also see if Foxy's mighty fighter jets managed to hit her targets in my lung.
A quick side bar here on how mountain climbers learn of the fate of their lives through scan results. As it turns out there's no real pattern here. Sometimes your oncologist will call to preview the findings. Sometimes you have to wait a few days for a longer chat with your surgeon. One time I just walked over to a room where data is stored at Stanford Hospital and simply asked for the report. I know. Like all that missing flour in our grocery stores, it's bananas.
Anyhow, this time I got a push notification to my phone around 4pm on Thursday with a message that simply read "new test results are available," while I was on a Zoom call, naturally. Holy cow. How does anyone hold their phone, pretend to Zoom, and sort out how to get your hands to stop trembling in order to read where life might be headed next.
There's no other way to do it other than this: you gracefully get out of the Zoom, breathe deeply, and shake your hands long enough so they're steady enough to open the app and read through what's often a confusing set of sentences from the radiologist. And if you're especially fortunate, you text a dear friend who happens to be thoracic surgeon to help you read through it all. And of course this dear friend was also in the middle of lots of Zoom calls, but paused long enough to text these magical words: "This is a good report. There is reason here to celebrate. More soon."
Here's the upshot: no evidence of cancer returning in my abdomen or pelvis. And the activity in my lung has stayed stable. The Itty Bitty (aka the Met) is still there hanging out, but it hasn't grown. And the teeny tinies are also scattered around, but the consensus now is that we simply don't know what that teeny tiny activity actually is.
I know what you're thinking. Stable feels a little bit lame when we all wanted to see good progress. I get it. But remember how I've been doing a little side hustle to form my own tumor board? That project is now in motion, and I have two new characters in my story from UCSF medical center (one is a famed colon cancer oncologist and the other is a savvy thoracic surgeon) who have weighed in on my case in recent weeks. They both agreed -- as did my fabulous surgeon friend who interrupted his Zooms to read my radiology report -- that stable scans for my lung would be a win. Or at least not a loss.
So Thursday night I found a way to pause and live in the in between before Dr. V on Friday, when he would review and interpret the actual images.
We love Dr V for a million different reasons, but one of my favorites is that he still sees patients in person even with Covid swirling all about. So there we were in his exam room, masks on, as he scrolled through each intricate image of my insides.
Isn't it amazing how you can still see someone smile even while they're wearing a mask? What is that about. Maybe it's about being fully present, and having empathy, and taking time, and being proximate to the most precarious places of all, with a full heart.
Dr V’s smile was followed by more encouraging news. "There's a lot here that's quite good. You're in a stable place. It's time to get that met out of your lung so we can see what it's all about. But it's a basic procedure and you'll recover quickly."
Yes but what about all those teeny tinies? As it turns out V calls them "schmaltzies," which is yet another reason to love him. His take: we just don't know, but the met (Itty Bitty) will help us know what's up, and how to best plot the course ahead. And that course could include maintenance chemo, or something more aggressive, or even a pause.
So we're back on Project Remove the Itty Bitty. I should know by early next week when we're a go, and which doctor will be suiting up for an eventual game day.
Now back to the beauty part. It's tempting to have an encouraging scan and a path forward as a big Exhibit A for Beauty with some kind of Zoom group hug. But if I've learned anything since July 1, the magic of this mountain is to hold the both the progress and setbacks lightly, and with open hands.
Instead, the beauty is the view from oh so very high up, an altitude I never thought I would visit. And I've never seen anything like it. As I look out, especially these days, I see how we're all showing up for each other, even as we bivouac in our bunkers. I see how we're all discovering to live in the in between -- me in between scans and procedures, and all of us in between life as we once knew, and life reimagined for the road ahead.
It's as if we're all temporarily suspended inside the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
But we move forward. We always do. And the sunrise of Sunday is dawning before our very eyes. Squinting out to the horizon, we see we're part of a bigger story now, and it's illuminating a dark path with compassion, courage, and smiles behind masks. This is transcendent beauty. It defies our present troubles. It infuses these broken days with a deeper meaning, and one we may not be able to fully grasp for quite some time.
Through these days, this beauty is realigning us with who we've always known we could be, for ourselves, and for each other.
CS Lewis described the wonder and pull toward beauty this way: "We do not merely want to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words -- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it."
The miracle of Easter, as Frederick Buechner once said, is the reminder that "the worst thing isn't the last thing." That's hope incarnate.
And it's this kind of love that unites us with the beauty we've been witnessing these past 40 days.
May we keep living the beautiful, forever surprising, miraculous grace of Sunday. Even, and especially, in the chapters of our lives that call us to new altitudes, ever higher up. With eyes to see more than we could possibly ever imagine.