Ordinary Moments

About 6 years ago, I noticed changes in my breast that eventually led to a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer. Six years later, I am ever grateful for the simple fact that I am alive.

But over these past 6 years, I’ve been plagued by the idea that – having survived a potentially deadly disease — I should be doing greater things with my life. This idea, I suspect, is one of the unmentioned after-effects of cancer, promoted by all the smiling faces on survivorship posters, the Facebook people who post their travel photos, the TV ads that show active people feasting on the very air. Look at all those survivors  – starting foundations, running marathons, changing the way the world spins.

And here am I, doing the dishes, going to the grocery, taking the car in for repairs. These are the activities that occupy what seems to be an excessive percentage of my days. I don’t know how to start a foundation. What’s more, I don’t have the drive or energy to find out. I gave up running long ago, a casualty of laziness and sensitive joints. Sometimes, it’s all I can do just to put three somewhat healthy meals in my mouth in the course of a day.

Make no mistake: I have great faith and belief in the everyday work I do – teaching, writing, looking after my family – simply because I believe these activities are important, if only to me. (No one has ever accused me of lacking ego!) But always there is the nag in the back of my head who says: “Why aren’t you doing more with your life?”

It’s a never-ending trap, this idea that we should always be doing something more – that who we are and what we do is somehow never enough. The size of this trap expands exponentially once you’ve been seriously ill, the product of the idea that contemplating death imbues a life with greater meaning and therefore greater action. This trap can be as psychologically damaging as the illness itself because of the guilt attached: “I’ve survived, so surely I’m supposed to solve world hunger?”

And that’s why I’m glad to see a change in focus in the ads now broadcast by a nearby cancer treatment center. Finally, here’s an ad that dismantles the trap, that reflects the reality of most of us who survive treatment. We mow the lawn, we make toast, we sort the laundry. I don’t like the implication in this ad that cancer is now an everyday occurrence – a speed bump on the way to the grocery —  and I chafe at ads that pit a center’s survival rates in a marketing competition against others. But I am glad to see the expectations made realistic. Life after cancer is pretty much as it is beforehand — full of ordinary moments.


15 Responses to “Ordinary Moments”

  1. Kristie Says:

    As a woman with TNBC, I agree with you on this. The other thing I don’t like is all this push that I am a “survivor”. It gives the false indication the threat is over. Until they find either a targeted treatment for TNBC or a cure, I see myself as “surviving”

    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      Kristie – Thanks for your comments. I feel uncomfortable with the term “survivor” as well. We’re all survivors of something, but the term always seems to attach itself to cancer. Cancer centers now say we become “survivors” the day of diagnosis. I get it; they want us to be hopeful, but my opinion is that false hope is foolish and the day of diagnosis is hardly sufficient time to determine an outcome. In my book, to be a survivor means you have to be over and past the thing, and you’re right. The thing about cancer is that you can’t ever be sure. I like your substitution of the work “surviving.”

  2. Cancer Curmudgeon Says:

    Yep, I’ve felt this before. Thought provoking, thanks!

    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      Thanks for your note and for reading. To combat this feeling, I try to focus on paying attention to what I’m doing and recognize that my circle of influence is much much smaller than I used to believe. I also make a point of being real with my kids, so maybe they won’t go out into the world with these expectations.

  3. Sue Rickels Says:

    Good post. I see it in ads depicting seniors traveling, dancing, having sex at a moment’s notice, enjoying life without work with only some gray hair to indicate age. Yuk. I struggle to at least keep the kitchen clean and eat decently, interact with friends. Never healthy, I now have an overlay of aging problems to contend with. Only since age 69 did I accept that I would not write that book(s) or lead a group, start a group again. I hover between the future as I ponder a pricey new chair on sale this Memorial Day Weekend, thinking–why? How many years left? And, more money I want to spend on my new “old” bungalow–save it. For what? A nursing home? So I spend. I have lost many friends in the last 8 years to death–one to cancer, others to cardiovascular causes–aging. Some in their early 60’s. I have three things on my very limited bucket list–one, accomplished, to outlive my beloved dog. Who else would spoil him as I did? Next, to get my will and estate documents in perfect order along with files and passwords to my executrix. (The latter are a mess). And, finally, to go through various old letters from family, repetitive photos of me taken in WW2 for my dad overseas, and make sure that nothing is left to be either trashed (I prefer shredding, more like cremation) or have some misleading line that would be hurtful to my surviving daughter.

    I do have friends older than I am who travel the world, have fun, and don’t seem bothered that they aren’t doing some great work. Still, I am haunted by untapped “potential” and the lack of my own respect for those things quotidian that make up our lives, things so meaningful. Yet we don’t acknowledge them as we should.

    The cancer survivors with foundations, marathons, the gray-haired seniors who shine and bubble with the enthusiasms of their 20’s, are media images of what our culture expects, wants to believe. The struggles with chemo, hair loss, radiation, and, yes, depression, fear are not in the media, but they are in real lives, the lives of people who continue to work, take care of their families, read, be supportive friends and spouses. These, like Julie, are the unsung heroes.

    I want to say that Julie’s Popsicle report and her carrying on AND surviving six years out is remarkable even though she won’t make the evening news.

    I spent much money and time going 150 miles to my excellent doctor every month. But, mid-June, I go on another sentimental journey to my heritage–Jackson, MS, and Crystal Springs. I will stay with a friend of over fifty years who has great local plans for us, including Eudora Welty’s home, now open. I’ll take photos of the antebellum homes of the Parsons’ branch in Crystal Springs. One story, non-Natchez mansions, that are restored by others. I suppose one photo of me in such surroundings could be given a glamour far beyond what it is–no side view of kyphosis and the loss of four inches of height in 10 years–and maybe that’s what is going on with those in the media. A “fairy tale” story of a day or two ribbon cutting or those many survivors who simply walk slowly during the marathons as my neighbor who has survived 20 years but is frail from what it took to do so.

    Julie is a hero. We need more snapshots of her with Naomi and Daniel. A graduation picture. A photo of Julie in the SMU choir, doing yoga, playing with Cooper–these would be great survivor moments.


    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      Sue – Ah dear woman, thanks for reading and for your remarks. You and I have talked about the “Pollyanna” expectation that gets applied to people in dire situations and the expectations of “survivorship” are part of that syndrome. I can only call things as I see them, and I figure that doing so might be helpful to someone else. Heck, that’s why we read literature, isn’t it? To see what other lives are like… to see if they reflect our own.

  4. Pam Says:

    Dear friend, in this posting you’ve written about something that has been nagging at me as well. Although I’m relatively new to this life in cancer’s shadow, I’ve been trying to figure out some kind of greatness that I can achieve on limited energy and time. It is enough, I must understand, to recall some of the things I did in other years and decades. I’m still going to volunteer and teach, I hope, but I need to wean myself from the idea that living with a dramatic illness means that I need to do something dramatic, or heroic, or spectacular in response. Thank you for helping me figure this out.

    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      Pam, thanks for expressing that idea so beautifully. In our always forward-looking and goal-seeking western culture it’s encouraged to think “the best is yet to be,” the fallacy that keeps us in a perpetual state of waiting. The longer I travel on “this mortal coil” the more I understand the symbolism of the Japanese cherry blossom. The meaning comes and goes in a natural rhythm. The trick is to recognize and value it when it presents itself.

  5. Cobie Whitten Says:

    I heard this ad and it spoke to me too – – – thanks, Julie.Best,Cobie  Cobie S. Whitten, PhD Psycho-Oncology Consultant

  6. Julie Yamamoto Says:

    A fellow reader sent me these remarks:

    Hooray, Julie! I am glad to be off the hook for creating World Peace.

    My sister has spoken to me of the “Cancer-Industrial Complex,” which name I think is apt. I refuse to give money to organizations like Susan G. Komen, which run very costly events from which a portion of the money goes to actual cancer work. So I thought about what I would want to do instead, and decided to send a check directly to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which is allied with Group Health and was actually part of my treatment (in the form of second opinions). Of course these institutions should be government-funded, but until then. . . .

    As for the idea of cancer as a “rite of passage”: I find myself feeling strange because I never had The Initiation–no chemo, hair loss, radiation, fatigue, bad skin. I guess I just had a warning shot across the bow. But would anyone wish more on anyone else? If my cancer had occurred earlier, or elsewhere, I would not have had it so easy.

    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments. I hear you and your sister about the cancer industrial complex. I also donate to SCCA and UW as I think they’re doing good work for the right reasons. I also donate to the TNBC foundation, because they are doing research specifically on the type of breast cancer I had.

      I guess I never really thought about an initiation to cancer land. If I had to pin one down, it would be simply the diagnosis. That’s what upends your whole world.

      Just yesterday and today I had a conversation with another friend who has been diagnosed with DCIS, and I thought, oh no not someone else.

      I think you make some very valid points.

  7. Anne Says:

    Julie — I really enjoyed reading your blog entry about Ordinary Moments. I have struggled with the whole “I need to make a difference in the world and take great joy in every day” thing since I was 20 years old. At that time, I was robbed and shot in my apartment in Gainesville, FL. I woke up the next day, alive, and still with my right arm attached (when I went into surgery the doctors were not real sure what was going to happen…). Of course I was so glad to be alive and young and in one piece that I swore I would take the world by the tail and live life to the fullest. That lasted for a short while until reality and real life set in and I was back to being normal. I also thought, until Dec. 1999, that that was going to be the worst thing that would ever happen to me. But, nooooooo — cancer decided to show up and upend everything. And, after treatment I again swore I would take the world by the tail and live life to the fullest only to have reality and real life take over once more. It took me a long time to realize I am just not that person portrayed in all the feel good ads/promotions. I’m cynical, unmotivated, and a Type B personality. Now that I have come to that realization, I am making efforts to come to grips with it and just live my life. However, there are those still around think I should be something other than I am because I am a survivor. ​I have never liked the term survivor because it makes it sound like those who did not make it are losers, and they most certainly were not losers. I had a wonderful discussion about this with a friend from Alaska one time because she felt the same way, only it was because her father did not win his battle and it made her angry that people thought he failed. I was so glad to find that someone else felt like me. She came up with the most wonderful description for those of us who are still living, but I have not been able to remember the term for the last 14 years!!!! I blame it on having chemo brain at the time we were together. Sometimes I feel like we have been co-opted by the media and others factions. I don’t understand why I have to be labeled to begin with, and what if I don’t like the label that has been placed on me — can I change it, especially to one I prefer (like Human Bean) or am I stuck with what others have said I am? Well, there’s my Rant For The Day! Thank you for sharing your blog (and I especially like the one about why your dog ate the chocolate cake).


  8. Meg Says:

    Thank you for your words about being a “survivor.” If we can just accept that it is pure dumb luck in many cases, maybe we can undo the idea that someone is a loser if they don’t make it. I believe I have been helped by the fact that I inherited good genes–through absolutely no virtue or fault of my own–dumb luck, a crapshoot in which I didn’t even get to roll the dice. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that cancer couldn’t get me in the long run.) It is easy sometimes to feel a little smug about my genes, but in the long run it isn’t about me at all.

    I blanch when I hear people talk about ways you can “prevent cancer.” You cannot!!! The healthy practices we are advised to do can perhaps tip the scales a bit in the non-cancer direction, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get cancer!

    Love, Meg

  9. Julie Yamamoto Says:

    Great conversation we’ve got going here. When I wrote this piece i didn’t anticipate it would resonate with so many people.

  10. The Accidental Amazon Says:

    Oh, Julie, what a great post. It took me years, after having to cut down my work hours due to cancer-related fatigue, even to feel equal to performing ordinary tasks. The more of those ordinary moments I can manage, the better. Those are the tasks of living, proof that we have wrested some ‘normal’ from the abnormal & unequal struggle that cancer thrusts us into. Here we are now, in another Pinktober, and it seems more important to me in this month to hang onto the ordinary, the real, because all that happy pink party stuff is not what’s real for most of us. What’s real for me is being grateful I can still pay my bills and keep a roof over my head.

    xoxo, Kathi

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