Erica’s Cancer Journey: “You ask, I answer”

Erica with a snake at Forsyth Nature Center

“God is a comedian playing to an audience
too afraid to laugh.”
– Voltaire

You ask:

Thank you so much for the June 7 column in which you tell us “25 Things about You.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing it with my girlfriend. We were curious about Number 23. What do you mean that “Cancer has been one of the biggest blessings of your entire life”?

I answer:

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the question.

I have experienced the gift of empowerment since encountering this “worst-case scenario,” or “a terrible tragedy,” according to many people. Cancer was never going to happen to me: no family history, excellent health, good diet, ample exercise, no antiperspirants et cetera et cetera. My out-of-the-blue diagnosis gives me the incredible opportunity to choose how to react, the gift to face head-on the thing I most feared: death. Now my mortality is in real, not abstract terms. The lifting of the veil of predictability as “safe,” constant and reliable in my life yields to the Unknown as now-familiar terrain. It’s my daily, my future. I’ve received insights and visions into death, which are consistently presented to me as completely neutral. The end of my mortal coil is not up to my own personal preference of timing. It’s totally out of my hands. What can possibly scare me anymore? Knowing death is coming enriches my life!

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Stage IV metastatic cancer is terminal. It doesn’t get “cured” like the other, lower stages. As a result, it gets my highest respect. It’s pure in its impersonal intent to take over anywhere in my body it can. So I don’t have to waste time in approaching it as healed, or deciding among several treatment options, or wondering if it’s punitive payback for tripping my brother when I was 4. I feel chosen for this path. Just that in itself is a huge gift.

I have received a new level of understanding of how I am loved in my world. I have made new, deep, important relationships as a direct result of my diagnosis. I have made better, clearer and more thoughtful choices for myself and my future. I have been gifted with the opportunity to share what I’m experiencing in the public realm. I’ve been on trips I never could have otherwise manifested for my family and me. I’ve seen Hamilton.

I have always had an innate interest and comfort level with death and dying. I have grown from the knowledge that no one can convince me of anything, so I no longer try to convince others, but rather help them to hear themselves. Awareness of my limited heartbeats strengthens my resolve to do the work to heal the brokenness in my life now, instead of holding out for passive change or waiting for the other person to be different. I have encountered extreme levels of wrenching physical and emotional pain that were previously unimaginable to me. I have been humbled by the stripping of various abilities, such as driving (still a challenge for me – I hate that loss of independence). The amount of love and compassion this has afforded to my own body and even more to others is priceless. I have made end-of-life plans and decisions I would never have bothered with otherwise. I can’t control my outcome, but my loved ones are aware of my wishes.

I lived a full life well before cancer and still do. I have always had a spiritual connection to the world. This cancer journey has given me a chance, an excuse, a strong motivation to go well beyond those levels. And when I get stuck, I inevitably receive support and scaffolding along the way. If I were the only person to die, that would suck. But I’ve been awakened to the gift of awareness that my life will be shorter than expected. Some never get the warning. I have less time here than anticipated, but I have been given an awareness of my time: to plan, to heal some hard parts, to live.

All of that said, I will also never, ever, pressure anyone else to have a cancer experience like mine. Each life is our own. I couldn’t arrive here without evolving, myself.

I invite families to inquire about end-of-life desires and preferences with each other. One great resource that I find helpful to spark conversations is this great booklet: short, simple, easy, and people can direct their feelings at the booklet versus the other people in the conversation: http://deathcaredirective.com.

Thank you again for your question. Anyone may feel free to share more questions or comments at kidsalmanac@ulsterpublishing.com.

Head On and Heart Strong!

Kids’ Almanac columnist Erica Chase-Salerno was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in the Summer of 2015. To read more about her experience, visit https://hudsonvalleyone.com/tag/ericas-cancer-journey.

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