You don’t just wake up with cancer one day. It takes a long time to get from “uh oh, what’s that mass?” to “it’s Stage IV incurable lung cancer.” During that agonizing wait time, I slowly started leaking the news to shell-shocked friends and loved ones.
Initially, concerns were kept within a tight circle of trusted confidants, but apparently news spreads like aggressive cancer in my family, and soon the word was out. With it came the deluge of obligatory “thoughts and prayers” that many people assumed would feel empty or, at the other end of the spectrum, completely overwhelming.
They weren’t. They aren’t.
As for those prayers—those who know me know I’ve never been much for religion. As a borderline atheist/agnostic, I felt like a phony every time someone said they’d pray for me. But who am I to turn down their well wishes? And who am I to say praying doesn’t actually work? At the very least, it’s a comfort to know there’s a collective of good-hearted folks rooting me along. So I went with it.
By the time I came officially out of the cancer closet, the gifts had already started pouring in. Head scarves and hats, blankets, all-natural toiletries and household products, books, desserts, flowers, cannabis oils—but the most interesting to me were the intimate, symbolic trinkets of faith.
My Auntie Barbara is my mother’s twin sister. She’s had breast cancer and a heart attack, but feels she made it through because of a small angel statue she kept in her bedroom to watch over her. She sent me an angel as well, and it’s directly across from my bed. I picture giving her a little fist bump before going to sleep every night.
My high school friend Cristina Cooper (who I haven’t seen in 20 years) sent a necklace she made from healing stones. My mother-in-law also gave me a necklace of my son’s birthstone fashioned into a cross with a delicate dove perched above it.
My cousin Jennifer sent me a Reiki towel blessed by a Reiki master to be placed on areas where there is pain. My friend Sarah sent me a worry stone I can hold when I’m feeling stressed. I try both.
My Auntie Dee and my cousin Jonelle sent Padre Pio (the Patron Saint of healing) oil, which I’m supposed to both drink and rub on the parts that hurt plus say a prayer whilst doing so. (You know how us Italians are with our Catholic Saints.) I do it.
My friend Yuki sent paper crane origami—paper cranes are Japanese symbols of healing and hope during tough times. They’re on my wall.
I love that when faced with troubling times, some people turn to God to provide them with the strength and courage needed to overcome. I love that others latch onto different symbols of spirituality to provide them with that same fortitude. I love that they hope to pass that comfort on to me, even if I don’t understand it.
I gave each one of these trinkets a try, figuring “What the hell. Can’t hurt.” But once the initial comfort wore off, I was left feeling confused and unanchored, unsure of what to focus on and unsure of what to believe. Feeling a bit like a fraud every time I closed my eyes and rubbed oil along my ribs. Feeling like I needed a lifeline anyway.
The night before chemo, I closed my eyes and prayed. To whom or what, I didn’t know. I imagined all my trinkets and what they represented. l wondered if I was speaking to God or to my own soul or both. With shaky, shallow breaths, I started.
Hi there, ummm. Hi. I don’t know how to start these things.
No, Wendy. This isn’t a journal entry. Close your eyes and try harder. Really mean it.
Please. Please help me.
I’m scared of chemo. I’m worried it’ll kill me. I’m worried I’ll be a shell of who I am.
I wait a beat. I dig deeper.
I can still do some good here. I think I’m supposed to help people. I want to help people. But I can’t help them if I’m dead. Or if I’m too weak. Help me face this thing down and win. How do I do that?
A picture forms in my mind, a quick flash. It’s Lucas. His bright, beautiful smile. His light. His innocence and pure goodness. I’ve got to do this for him—I knew that all along.
It’s for him. It’s all for him.
I whisper it out loud. “For Lucas, for Lucas, for Lucas.” I bundle myself up in a blanket knitted by women in my aunt’s church—literally wrapping myself in their prayers. That’s how they find their strength. Now I know how to find mine.
It’s the morning of chemo, and I dress the part. Cosy, loose-fitting sweats. A book. My blanket. My worry stone. And I pull on a pair of “fuck cancer” socks, courtesy of my friend Leslie, who also sent a “fuck cancer” adult coloring book. Some of us also find our strength in cussing. A good “go fuck yourself” feels a lot better than a few Hail Marys.
Pulling into the parking structure of the oncology department, I’m 15 minutes from my first chemo appointment. While driving around and searching for a spot, my phone rings and changes my life.
“Wendy! This is Dr. Jody Chuang. Do not go into your chemo appointment right now. We got your test results back, and you’re positive for the ALK-gene mutation.”
“This means you’re a candidate for targeted therapy, which is much better tolerated and has a higher success rate than chemo. You will just need to take pills. You won’t lose your hair. You can travel. You can have your…”
I stopped hearing her after that. Hot tears had formed at the corners of my eyes and I turned to my mom in disbelief.
“What happened, Wendy? What is she saying?” My mom looked worried. Steadying herself for bad news. We’ve gotten used to doing that in this family.
Mom will soon break down in tears of relief, choking her way through phone calls to my dad, her sister, my Auntie Jean, and a few others. I called my sister-in-laws, cousins, and best friends. We all cried.
“You see, Wendy? You see the power of prayer? That was God. That was God telling you he’s watching out for you!” My mom was triumphant.
I smiled as I pictured walking Lucas to school in the mornings again, holding his hand.
“You’re right, Mom. It was.”