No Man Is An Island

The other day I was walking down Broadway in my usual oblivious state, on the way from an acupuncture session to a therapy session, and this dark-haired guy in front of me turns around, stares right at me and asks, “Hey, weren’t you at the Natural History Museum on Labor Day with your two girls?” I stared back and then asked, “Hey, weren’t you the guy standing behind us in the ticket line?” The guy was on vacation with his daughter from Florida and they were on their way to see a show. Now what are the odds of that happening in this city of 13 million people? I bet they’re lower than my not-so-great odds of surviving stage IV colon cancer.

Anyhow, the incident got me thinking about the threads of our lives. Our lives are an intricate, chaotic weave, where threads touch, entwine and twist and then diverge to maybe come together again. Many threads are joined for a long time representing the long-standing relationships that typically exist between siblings, spouses, and parents and children. More threads touch for but a second, much like me and this man from Florida, and have no discernible significance. But sometimes, the intersection of two threads, however brief, can have a profound impact on the lives represented by those threads.

Case in point: In late April, more than a month before I became symptomatic, I found a blog about a 32-year-old man who was recently diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer — I’ll call him R. I found him when a cousin of a cousin “liked” a Facebook post by R’s wife in which she shared her husband’s latest blog entry. Other than cooking blogs, I never read blogs. I didn’t think about cancer. But R’s words moved me. Maybe, it was his youth; maybe it was the fact that he had two children too who were even younger than mine. I was so moved that I left a comment (again something I never do) saying that although I’d never met him, I was thinking of him and would continue to think and pray for him during and after his upcoming grueling surgery. R didn’t respond; I didn’t expect him too. I did think of him occasionally after that, and I would periodically check Facebook to see how he was faring.

And then I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. I thought of R often then, of the feelings he and his wife must have felt when they received his diagnosis, of the strength they had both shown by somehow going on and even writing about their pain. Both he and his wife inspired me in those early dark days and they still inspire me now. I left another comment on his blog after my diagnosis. I told him about my cancer, about how I had contributed to his fund to raise money to fight the insurance company that was refusing to pay for radiation treatment, about how as a fellow cancer fighter, I was behind him. We are now friends on Facebook.

Although I didn’t start my blog expressly with the intent of helping others, I am finding that it is having that effect. Young mothers also afflicted with colon cancer have reached out to me to tell me how my words are lifting their spirits. Friends who have lost loved ones to cancer or who have faced illness or other challenges have told me that what I write has such resonance and serves a therapeutic purpose. As I continue to struggle to answer the “why” question in all of this, as in what is the karmic reason for an otherwise healthy 37-year-old woman having colon cancer, I am comforted by the knowledge that good like this is resulting from my cancer. For the first time in my life, aside from raising my children, I feel like I am doing something important. The knowledge that my thread of life might be touching so many other threads out there (facilitated by the awesome power of the internet and social media), that I might be having some positive effect on the lives of others going through tough times, makes having cancer a lot more bearable. More importantly, it gives me the joy, strength and inspiration to fight my own war against cancer.

I have been moved to tears by the kindness and support that has been shown me and my family. The parents of Mia’s classmates and Mia’s school are paying for her to receive school lunch this year so I don’t have to get up early every weekday to pack her lunches. That and the home-cooked meals, babysitting, offers of sitting with me during chemo treatments, countless phone calls,, texts, emails, messages, cards and care packages are beyond what I and Josh could have ever expected. I could never pay everyone back for their generosity of heart. A friend who encouraged me to write this blog said that good writers have a lot to offer the world. So as a way to show my gratitude for the support I’ve received, I’m going to pay it forward in the best way I know how, by writing and continuing to share myself with honesty, in the hope that my words will resonate with even just one more person.

So my friends and family and those of you I don’t know personally, please share my blog because maybe I can be like R for someone else. I’ve learned that it isn’t until you are so personally touched by cancer that you realize how much havoc cancer and other diseases have wreaked on the lives of so many. People just don’t talk about it because no one wants to actually discuss such painful and depressing things. So people hurt in silence, visiting online forums and chat rooms, searching for accounts of people who share their experiences. I know because I’ve done this many a night since my diagnosis. I guarantee that within your networks, there are people who have been or are being terrorized by illness.

When I was younger and even before I was diagnosed, although to a lesser degree, more than anything else in the whole world I wanted to be an island unto myself, a self-contained, independent, strong individual who needed no one. Part of that was attributable to youth — much in the same way my 2 years old insists, “I wanna do it myself.” A lot of it though was attributable to my visual disability. When my mother insisted on cloyingly holding my hand whenever we crossed a street, I would throw her off. She used to tell my elementary school teachers at parent conferences in her broken English how I wanted to be independent. Independence was my ideal, the complete opposite of dependency and weakness, the complete opposite of being an invalid who people would pity. It spurred me to go 3,000 miles away to a college I’d never visited at 17, then study abroad in a developing country the whole of my junior year and spend summers traveling alone in Europe, Asia and South America, rejecting nearly all offers of traveling companionship. Let’s just say I had a lot of issues and a lot to prove to myself.

And now I have advanced colon cancer, and I’m asking for help and want to help others. I don’t want to be an island unto myself anymore. Strength as it turns out is not embodied in being a self-contained, independent being. Rather, strength lies in the recognition of one’s limitations, as well as the understanding that each of us as members of the human race are united by common emotions — joy at the birth of a child, grief after the death of a loved one, fear in the face of a terrifying disease — and by virtue of that bond, we are each capable of amazing compassion that will inspire others in their moments of deepest despair. British poet, John Donne, conveyed these ideas more eloquently than I ever could in his poem “No Man Is An Island”.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mhastings1229
    Sep 06, 2013 @ 17:21:58

    Amazing. It’s like you are reading my mind. Thank you for your words…from one stage 4 survivor to another, be strong!

    Reply

  2. Valerie
    Sep 06, 2013 @ 17:30:44

    Julie, I love your blog. I check it every day. Keep writing!

    Reply

  3. Rich Garcia
    Sep 06, 2013 @ 18:30:34

    Inspiring… Keep blogging! You are in my thoughts and prsyers. I too am stsge 4 Colorectal With multiple liver metastasis.

    Reply

  4. Katie
    Sep 06, 2013 @ 20:33:51

    Thank you for this! I am also a fiercely independent type, and letting go of that has been one of the hardest things about adjusting to my new reality.

    Reply

  5. Erika Hanson Brown
    Sep 06, 2013 @ 21:47:43

    I’m so pleased that you are our *magical* COLONTOWNIE Number 1000….! Lovely, lovely writing!

    Reply

  6. Adam
    Sep 07, 2013 @ 17:24:57

    As usual, you articulated things so well. Just letting you know that I keep up with your blog… And so good seeing you the other day! We must hang out again soon.

    Reply

  7. Rachel
    Sep 09, 2013 @ 08:26:47

    Julie you are my R.!!! I know this might sound weird but I think about you everyday. I have not met any other mom who was dx with Stage IV and although I don’t know you I feel like we have so much in common – sometimes I wish we could even have coffee together and give each other hope, strength and energy to move forward… but also provide a shoulder to cry on because I know you know EXACTLY how I feel (too bad I live in FL lol). I am going in for round 2 this morning and was glad to see your post! thank you for sharing!

    Reply

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