Well here we are, coming close to the end of September. Have you heard? It's Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month! There's a lot to know about ovarian cancer and cancer awareness in general. But, I would like to share something a little different today. Two stories about how ovarian cancer has change my life: the first, about my wife, Sarah Sadtler Feather (1971-2011); and the second about me – after losing my wife. Both stories are about transformation, turning points and clarity in life.
Sarah – Rock climbing at Estes Park, Colorado with First Descents, September 2010
A year ago, Sarah ventured to Estes Park, Colorado to attend a rock climbing program through First Descents, an outdoor adventure program offered to young adult cancer fighters/survivors that is designed to enable a defiance of cancer, a reclamation of life and a connection with others doing the same.
Rock climbing was definitely not in Sarah's standard repertoire. As a matter of fact, she'd never even tried it. She was scared, but intrigued. I know she was also excited for the opportunity to check off a new item on the bucket list.
During her five-day trip, she experienced two incredible personal transformation points. Both would remain a part of her to her last day. One would give her strength. The other would ultimately take her life.
It all started with the elevation. At close to 9,000 feet above sea level, the air's a lot thinner than where we live outside of Boston, MA. Ovarian cancer had raided her body, and Sarah knew her lungs were already getting weaker as metastases were taking hold, ever so slowly. Going to the gym was becoming harder, but she still went three or four times a week. In Colorado, the higher elevation made her feel like someone was sitting on her chest. Fatigue had been a part of her daily existence for more than 4 years, but now it took an even deeper hold. Suddenly the idea of rock climbing, an energy/oxygen-intensive activity, was terrifying.
She called me via Skype every night from her bunkroom. Often in tears, exhausted, frustrated and deeply disappointed, she would say how hard things were. She felt like a failure. I did my best to listen and to be supportive. But I'm sure I also gave too much advice, reminding her of how amazing she was and of her wonderful accomplishments.
But Sarah's struggle at Estes Park is what gave her a new strength. While she had already been through hell and back with numerous major surgeries, an ileostomy, chemotherapy more times than I can count, depression and more, this new challenge was powerful and exciting.
With help from her fellow campers and the amazing staff and volunteers at First Descents, Sarah was able to complete climbs, stand at the top, see the views and embrace her successes. Something about the physical experience of climbing a giant rock face, while others cheered her on, let her find a new strength, a deep vigor that would guide her to meet her goals in Colorado, and, later, would guide her at home as she completed her journey of life.
When she returned home at the end of the week, she was different. She knew something she had not known before: the end was coming. Nothing could stop it. It was simply a matter of time. Her lungs where getting worse. She could feel it and knew it was time to help people understand.
But, she also had this new sense of strength, combined with hope and a deep, profound love for life. She shared this with me, with our boys, our family and friends. As she moved closer to the end, she encouraged me to live my life to the fullest, to keep going, to be strong for myself and our kids, and simply to remember her and her love in the best ways I could. And in her deepest, giving way, she especially wanted me to love again.
I don't think she knew it at the time (maybe not even when she died), but she was to become a shining beacon - one that would teach so many about life, about death, about love, about courage, about living to the fullest extent we are able.
(You can read her Estes Park story in the following three posts: “Catching My Breath”, “Looking for Footholds” and “Storming the Castle”.)
Ed – New experiences - dating in Boston, MA, Summer 2011
I felt good, but nervous. We'd been talking all night about life, people, places and experiences. Few were shared between the two of us, but the many similarities and differences created some wonderful contrasts.
The woman sitting across from me was a natural beauty. She was quite stunning with a gentle, beautiful face and long, flowing hair. If she wore makeup, it was very little, and clearly not needed.
Leaning forward, I asked, "What are you looking for in a partner? What do you want?"
"I want to be known," she said, gazing back across the table. I sensed a deeper meaning, but wasn't sure I fully appreciated the significance of her statement.
"Do you mean you want someone who understands you?" I asked, hesitantly.
Her response was deliberate and pointed. "No, I want to be known." She paused, looked at me and then went on. "Lots of my friends understand me. But none... know me. I want to be known."
"Wow," I thought. This was so conceptual, and so far from what I might have expected a woman to say when describing what she wanted in a man or relationship. Her tone was serious, but there was something else. Perhaps a hint of sadness. Clearly something she had pondered, and perhaps had wanted for a long time.
"That takes a long time." I said. "You can only really, truly know someone by spending a lot of time together."
She gave a slight nod. "Mmm" she said, mouth closed, with a hint of a smile.
That she said "I want to be known" was not as surprising to me as was the depth and importance of her statement. This idea was of a kind that, once implanted, remains active, repeatedly asking for ponderance. I went home that night with my mind hunting for a connection to my own life experience, searching for personal understanding. Of course this raised thoughts of Sarah.
Sarah and I were together for 18 years. She was my wife, my best friend, my love, the mother of my kids, my muse. I was hers. In our shared experience we touched the depths of each other’s souls. We knew each other so profoundly, so completely that our love felt infinite. Our trust was implicit and complete right up to her very last breath of life.
I held Sarah in my arms as she died. Ovarian cancer had won. As she slipped away and fell limp in my arms I felt my soul shudder. Our love and trust and knowledge had been so complete. Now they were shattered. She was gone.
I do believe the knowledge we shared will remain in me for the remainder of my days. I will always remember our love, our friendship and all she did for me. She wanted me to move on and be able to live a full life, and she encouraged me to love again.
So now, as I think of my date's statement: "I want to be known." I think I may fully understand her meaning. And, I agree. I also want to be known... again.
Cancer awareness. Every month. Every year.
I have some strong thoughts on this subject and have posted them at Carcinista.com. Cancer awareness is important. What is even more important, and could have saved the life of my dear Sarah, is to go see your doctor if you are not feeling well. Don't shrug it off. Get it checked out. Be specific. Make sure they know how you feel. Make sure to get a second opinion if you don't feel like they are taking you seriously. YOU are the only one who truly knows your body.