The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.


by Valerie QuinnFebruary 3, 2022View more posts from Valerie Quinn

We got out of our 2008 Toyota Matrix, arriving at a gorgeous cabin on the coast of Maine, so far from our little apartment in South Brooklyn, on a little peninsula looking out over a chain of islands leading out to the Atlantic.  We walked out to the water and stretched, breathed.  We had been told that the tides were extreme here.  I wondered aloud to my husband, is it low tide?  Is this as low as it gets?

We had learned something about lows in the prior two months. March 18 I learned I had cancer.  I met with surgeons and oncologists all through March. This part is a blur. April 19 I went into surgery for a radical cholecystectomy and liver resection.  While I was under, it was decided that they would not proceed with the surgery as they could see metastases in my abdominal cavity, meaning the cancer had spread during my initial surgery and I was then reclassified as stage IV, metastatic.  Told I would be very lucky to survive.  10 days later, April 29, we started IVF to preserve embryos and my egg retrieval was May 9 (Mother’s Day… a little heavy handed, right?).  May 11 I had my first treatment of a 10 round chemo cycle, gemcitabine/cisplatin, May 18 I had my second treatment.  May 22 we drove to Maine.  I look at us then, now, not even a year later, with such sweetness and love for those two beautiful people whose world had been completely shattered.  We didn’t know what to do, so we went to the forest and found some water.

Sweet sweet city loves.  The tide wasn’t low upon our arrival.  In fact, it was basically at its highest it would be that day. I learned this on google later on in the evening, and I laughed like such an absolute maniac that it hurt my stomach incisions.  It just felt like such a metaphor, and such a fuck you to my previous paradigms that were no longer useful.  How could you possibly be so stupid and naïve as to think that had been low tide?  Don’t you know how much lower it can get?

It was in nature a few months earlier that we were deep in feeling another low tide.  COVID had eliminated all of my husband’s work as a musician, and we were grappling with questions of what our life would be if this pandemic was long term.  We are immigrants to the US, both Canadian.  We wondered what we were doing in our tiny apartment, and in NYC at all if he was not performing.  The summer and fall of 2020 we hiked avidly, it was all we could do.  And we had our best chats on those hikes.  It was low, it was scary.  And through walking and talking, in the mountains, by the ocean, around our neighborhood, we had decided, even though we weren’t where we thought we “should” be with our work/immigration status/apartment/pandemic/etc that it felt like the time to start our family.  It wouldn’t be perfect, it wouldn’t be easy, but nothing is perfect and life is not easy, and we had each other, and we felt like we had enough, and mostly we had so so much hope.  And so we started trying.  High tide man.  Lots of sex.  Laughing at baby names and researching “tiny apartment nurseries”, taking our vitamins.  So much excitement.  At the end of 2019 we danced around a fire under a full moon.  I look at those two lovers with such adoration too, I miss them.

When it didn’t happen quickly, we weren’t stressed, but when I got my period in February it was a full moon.  My period always happens on a full moon, weird witchy woman, even now that it is crawling back post-chemo.  I decided that would be a good time to see my doctor, run my numbers.  I had found gallstones incidentally on a previous ultrasound in 2019, and they had never bothered me, but I had learned that they could act up and I could need surgery during pregnancy.  I had started to notice some swelling in my upper right stomach, and thought maybe it could also be a good time to deal with it so that I didn’t have to in an emergency.  Non-emergent surgeries had just started happening again, and without my doctor even seeing me in person, I had an appointment with a surgeon, and a surgery date for “a super easy procedure”.  I was told by everyone I met for pre-surgical testing and ultrasounds “you’re so healthy”, “you’re going to do so great”.  I did.  After the surgery and the recovery, I felt awesome and was focused on recovering so I could get pregnant now without gallstones.  I hate remembering how great I felt. I felt so great I rescheduled my appointment for the surgical follow-up to be a few days later than planned, and they called me a few times to make sure that I was coming to the follow-up appointment where he told me that the post-surgical pathology had come back with cancer.  I love that woman from back then – I’d never seen a tide so low before.  At the time I thought she was so stupid, how could you have thought this was going to work out for you?  Naïve and stupid like the girl who didn’t know low tides. But I’ve seen one or two of them now. I wasn’t stupid or naive I just had no concept of this kind of low.

And then two months later there we were, in Maine during a particularly powerful full moon, and therefore the tides were as wild as they get.  We are talking like a 15 foot difference between low and high.  Somehow I got my post-surgical body into a kayak (uh…how?), not once, but twice.  Once at high tide, once at low. Seaweed that had been sitting crisping in the sun during low tide would start to dampen and move and come to life as the water returned. Islands would appear and disappear. At low tide you could see the insides and undersides of islands, roots of trees jutting out into water that isn’t there. At high tide you couldn’t tell what was land and what was its reflection in the water, and jellyfish attached themselves to our kayak paddles. We drank our coffee out among the trees. We ate too much lobster. We meditated.  We took plant medicines, and I saw myself underground, expansive, like under the sea bed of the body of water outside our cabin. I marveled at how green green could be. High, low.

Over the course of my chemo treatments it was this cycle too, two weeks low, one week high. We got into nature as much as we could – the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the Oregon coast and the Willamette Valley, Shenandoah National Park, our favorite spots of upstate NY and the Hudson Valley.  I was so high on those trips, I could feel my body, I got away from my doctors and my bed and my side effects of chemo wore off the farther I got from my last treatment.  My energy climbed.  And without fail on the last hikes or days of our trips I would start to feel the tides changing.  Trying to embrace and be present how good I was feeling, knowing what was worse to come.  I couldn’t stop it, and that feeling of resistance was so painful, I couldn’t just flow with it.  I’m better at it now I think.  Being okay with the fact that we are never still, always moving, reaching whatever the high or low it is for that day, and then reversing back again, but perhaps to a different point than it had been at previously.  A cycle, always moving yet predictable. Tides are weird. Moons are powerful. There is suffering and there is joy.

I know too that I am a ways off from what might be my real low tides.  I have only had first line chemotherapy, I’m not even a year old yet in this version of myself that includes my cancer, just a baby myself.  I’ve only just had my first scans (earlier than planned) and my first bloodwork check-in (tumor markers are up and I’m feeling all sorts of weird).  Not sure that we’ll ever get to bring one of those frozen embryos to life.  I let myself still hope sometimes (believe when I can), that if it is true I haven’t seen a real low tide, that maybe I haven’t experienced my highest tides yet either.  That perhaps, in my metaphor, as hilarious as I thought it was that I didn’t know how low a low tide could be, that I also wasn’t seeing the high tides clearly.  For now just being open to learning more lessons from nature about tides, medicine, the expansiveness of the world underground, the moon.

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