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Finding Hope After Cancer and Covid

Friday, July 15, 2022

By Darcey Gohring

I blinked my eyes awake. The doctor was beside me studying my chart. I was in the recovery room, which meant the procedure must be over. The procedure was a colonoscopy—the harbinger of middle age—which I had put off for over a year.

I’d delayed it because last summer I had what could best be described as a mental health breakdown involving panic attacks and a resurgence of anxiety brought on by a breast cancer diagnosis in early 2020.

But now I was almost two years cancer free, still under 50, healthy by all other accounts, and it had been a year since the worst of the breakdown. A year of anti-anxiety medications and weekly therapy sessions; a year of slowly feeling like my old self, of starting to believe in reason and common sense and not the corrosive worries that had pervaded my thoughts. I scheduled the colonoscopy because I was strong enough. Reason said that I’d have it and this doctor would say, “all good, see you in 10 years for the next one.”

“Everything go okay?” I asked the doctor, waiting for her to confirm that it had. Instead, she smiled, told me to take it easy for a few more minutes, and she’d be back to chat once I’d fully awakened. A nurse came in and removed the IV from my arm, and brought me a wrapped cookie and a bottle of water with a straw. I was nibbling on the snack and taking some small sips of water when I noticed a piece of paper on the tray next to my bedside. It contained discharge instructions, images of what I assumed was the inside of my colon, and a summary of the findings.

As I scanned the document, one word stopped me — biopsy.

We all have these moments, these experiences with before and after — an unexpected circumstance that threatens to change life as you know it. At almost 50, I’ve encountered several of them and they all seem to fit a pattern: the event itself unfolding, the shock, the asking, How could this happen? A period of feeling lost and untethered. Wondering if your life will ever be the same; wondering if something even worse is going to happen; and, finally, little by little, finding hope again.

I remember 9/11 as one of those times. My husband and I were living just across the Hudson River from New York City. On that September day, I stood in a park and watched the towers burn. At 27, I had never experienced the kind of sorrow I felt as smoke billowed up from where the towers had stood just a few hours before. I had never felt terror like I did later in the day as I sat by the phone waiting to hear if my friends, many of whom worked downtown, were alive or dead. It seemed unimaginable that so many lives could be cut short. But then, why would my friends be the lucky ones that made it out alive when so many others did not?

“I had come out of it. I was finding my way back to myself. All I needed was hope to find me and assure me once again that one bad thing didn’t always lead to another.”

I also remember one of the days that followed that horrible one: standing in a cheering crowd on the main street of our town waving an American flag as a fleet of local firefighters heading to Ground Zero passed by. I never felt prouder to be an American. I felt connected to the strangers and neighbors who stood beside me. Something terrible had happened but this spontaneous act of unity proved there was still good left in the world. Good people gathered together, other brave ones on their way to help the helpless. Yes, we were collectively grieving but we were also celebrating what we still shared.

I’d had similar, yet more personal experiences, too. Infertility was one of the more vivid ones. My husband and I found out just a few years into our marriage that the only way pregnancy would be possible for us was with IVF. So, while many of our friends got pregnant on their first attempts, I stabbed myself with hormone-filled needles, had daily blood tests, underwent unpleasant procedures, and prayed endlessly for a miracle.

In the days that followed the embryo implantation, I analyzed every twinge in my body. Each time I felt even the tiniest cramp, I became more convinced that the procedure hadn’t worked. I cursed my body. I cursed the insurance company for not covering any of it. I tried to prepare myself for what I thought was inevitable. I knew this was our only chance since the cost of the procedure was half my salary at the time and we couldn’t afford to do it again anytime soon.

When the nurse called with the results, I braced myself for the worse. When she said I was pregnant, I asked her to repeat herself. Twice. A few weeks later, as the doctor studied the ultrasound screen analyzing what looked to be a picture of a distant galaxy, I told myself not to be surprised if something bad happened. Then he casually told my husband and me that there was not one baby but two.

The most recent experience came in April of 2020 when I was sitting on the couch during the first Covid lockdown watching television and my finger brushed over something unexpected as I mindlessly adjusted my sports bra. Less than a week later, a surgeon confirmed I — the runner, the woman who ate a mostly plant-based diet, who has no family history — had breast cancer and it was happening at the worst possible time.

And yet, I had come out of it. I was finding my way back to myself. All I needed was hope to assure me, once again, that one bad thing didn’t always lead to another.

“I cursed my body. I cursed the insurance company for not covering any of it. I tried to prepare myself for what I thought was inevitable.”

In the doctor’s office, I stared at the word “biopsy.” In my mind, it only represented one thing — cancer. Here it was again, less than two years after I’d seen the same word on another piece of paper. By the time the doctor returned, I was already prepared for what she was going to tell me. Most polyps are around 5mm and this one was 30mm. Apparently, whatever it was was not actually inside my colon but pushing through from the outside so the cells they had taken to biopsy may not be accurate. The only way to be sure was for me to have a CT scan of my abdomen.

A week later at the scan, I analyzed every word the technician said. I studied what I could see of his face, even though most of it was covered with a mask, trying to guess what each subtle change in his expression meant.

The tech was gentle and sweet. He asked if I wanted a blanket. He sympathized with me about the taste of the chalky contrast dye I had to drink for them to get a clear view. He calmly told me when I was allowed to take breaths and when I had to hold them during the scan. When it was over, he assured me that I had been a great patient. I couldn’t help wondering if he was being so kind because he had seen something bad? Did he already know if my life was about to be turned upside down?

As I walked to my car, tears blurred my vision. “This can’t happen,” I said out loud and didn’t care who heard me. I went home and imagined every worst-case scenario my mind could conjure.

Four days later, the doctor phoned with the results. The scans showed no cancer. After the call, I sat and waited. I waited to feel relief. I waited for hope to find me. After all, I’d received good news and that’s the way this was supposed to work. But the problem was, hope didn’t feel like it used to. It felt scary to invite it in. It seemed caught in two years of limbo — in Covid, breast cancer, polarized relationships, war, another variant, climate change, inflation, mass shootings, and a hundred other things.

Maybe hope was lost and I hadn’t fully realized it until now. I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Were we all forever changed? How long could we hold onto the belief that life would get better again? Is hope endless or at some point does it simply run out? Was it better to always be prepared for the worst than let yourself be disappointed again?

The next morning, I left for a long-planned trip to New England. Physically, I was there — walking the streets of Portland, Maine, with my husband and daughter, browsing in shops, and wandering down to the waterfront to look for a spot for lunch. But my mind was elsewhere, unable to break away.

We found a table outside and as we waited for our meals to arrive, we stared out at the water and made casual conversation. There was plenty to see — fishing boats, docks piled with lobster traps, and seagulls scanning the shoreline in search of a snack.

Just ahead, a shiny, dark ball stood out against the blue of the water, and then it disappeared and bobbed up a short distance away. “It’s a seal!” my husband said and we laughed as the seal playfully swam before us.

I thought about that seal’s life. I’m sure he had had his share of hardship, too. Maybe last week he had been chased by a shark. Maybe yesterday he couldn’t find food. But today, he was here, in this moment, and he knew nothing of Covid or cancer or gun violence or war or variants. What he knew was that the cold winter was coming to an end. He knew the embrace of saltwater. He knew that the sun was shining and that it warmed him.


Darcey Gohring is a freelance writer based outside New York City. She specializes in human interest and lifestyle content. She is a contributing author to the anthology book, Corona City: Voices From an Epicenter, and recently completed her first novel.

Connect with Darcey on Instagram or Twitter to learn more about her work.