By Jane McGovern
The first time it happened I was watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics. It was one of those cold, wintry days when I had a list of things I should be doing but somehow ended up yet again on the couch in a stupor of mindless television. I had made a to-do list that morning and that effort was enough for a self-congratulatory date with the couch. One hour turned into two. Two morphed into three. Fingers crossed that my husband doesn’t call to check up on me… I’d have to make up some meaningful activity to account for the time. To be fair, I was exhausted from trying to go back to work as a Special Education Paraprofessional too soon. I had barely recovered from the chemo, bilateral mastectomy and radiation. I was still receiving Herceptin and was looking forward to a hysterectomy and reconstructive surgery. The mind was willing, but the body was so not prepared. My eagerness to get back to my “normal” life resulted in my utter and total exhaustion.
I was enjoying the Olympics and indulging in my recurring fantasy that someday I could be an Olympic athlete. I was going to learn how to compete in Curling. It looked easy enough. All you had to do was sweep, and I’m pretty good at that. I wanted to march in the opening ceremonies, hang out with the other athletes in the Olympic village, and wear patriotic uniforms designed by Ralph Lauren. Today’s event was Downhill Skiing. I watched in awe as Lindsey Vonn flew down the mountain, careening, careering, catapulting herself to Gold. As she crossed the finish line, she spun out and collapsed, wracked by heaving sobs.
I immediately started sobbing. Why? What the hell? Why would I be crying when clearly Curling is my event. It took me a few minutes to recognize it. I had crossed my own finish line the summer before. It wasn’t on a mountain or even a local charity run. It was in the oncology suite. Instead of strapping on skis, I was hooked up to a bag of poison. I was receiving the final of 8 dose-dense chemo treatments. It was an all day affair and I was prepared with the usual snacks, entertaining videos, and trashy magazines. My oldest child was there to keep me busy and drive me home.
What I was unprepared for was the wall of emotion that hit me after the nurse removed the line from my port and said congratulations, go home. I took two steps toward the door and was instantly doubled-over with heaving, wracking sobs. I had to lean on my son for support. I had done it. I had finished the chemo, kind of, the hardest stuff anyway. The stuff that had me in a constant state of nausea and pain… the kind of pain that has you watching the clock, counting down to when you can take your next pain pill so that you could drift off into a haze of nothingness.
I had held it together while in the thick of the most trying moments, and now I was done, kind of. Although I still had a lot ahead of me, I had conquered what was in my mind the most challenging piece of my cancer treatment pie, chemotherapy. The sobs were relief, pouring out of my eyeballs, relief so huge that I couldn’t wrap words around it. I instantly recognized that in Lyndsey Vonn. She had worked so hard for her Gold, and she was done. She did it. She conquered it. She kicked that mountain’s ass.
It happened again this summer… different Olympics, different city, different athlete. My husband flipped on the TV and we were lucky enough to witness Gwen Jorgensen crush her competitors in the Women’s Triathlon in Rio. She was a gazelle, stretching her long legs toward victory. She crossed the finish line and was immediately doubled over with sobs… heaving, gut wrenching sobs. My waterworks turned on again. I get it Gwen, I thought, I am with you. We both crossed a finish line. My body has healed, more or less. I don’t think about cancer so much any more. My life is back to “normal.” But I still have the heart and soul of an Olympic athlete. I kicked cancer’s ass.