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To Have Ever Lived at All!
Diane Behar

From the moment I touched what felt like a flat piece of chewing gum almost floating on my right breast, I knew I had cancer. It was November of 1988. I was lying peacefully in bed recuperating from a bad bout of the flu when I unexpectedly came across a strange, foreign presence under my skin which I hoped would simply not be there the next day. But it was. And the day after that. And the day after that.

Terrified to the core, I ran to my gynecologist who, after feeling it for some time, announced that it was probably a cyst, that I was a spring chicken, and that I shouldn't worry about it. Nevertheless, I insisted on having a mammogram and was told that everything was okay. But I never read the radiology report. If I had, I would have discovered that this worrisome addendum to my breast was probably benign.

Months passed. The lump did not go away; one day in the shower, I felt it very carefully with my soapy fingers and realized that it had grown. I felt the blood rush out of my face and into my frozen feet. This time I made an appointment with a breast specialist who examined me briefly and told me, "It's a good thing you came here." When I asked him exactly what he meant by that, he said. "There is a very good chance you have a malignancy."

His words went through me like a hot bee sting. I began crying and couldn't stop. My jaw was bobbing up and down, and I had the sensation of falling through space. He told me to get control of myself as, "We can't have the other people in the waiting room see you like this." Shocked even further by his cold statement, I asked him if he had a back door and ran out of the office.

As though in a dream, I wandered over to the East River and cried and cried and cried into the water. I wanted to crawl out of my skin, which felt like a tight jumpsuit. I knew my life would never be the same.

I eventually found a very warm and caring doctor who put a little pillow under my head while examining me and said, "I would like to see this under a microscope." A week later, he did. While I slowly awakened from my biopsy, he came into my room, stood in front of my bed, and said, "My dear, we have a problem. The lump on your breast was cancerous."

"I know,"I said.
He continued. "You will need to have a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and probably radiation, and, if you wish, reconstruction. And then you will be fine."

I will never forget those powerful, positive words at the end of his sentence, "And then you will be fine." They almost magically canceled out all the other uncomfortable words that preceded them. They were to be the starting point of my will to live.

For the next year, as I went through the experience of losing my hair, losing my boyfriend, and often my self-esteem, those wonderful words rattled through my brain like a welcome life raft in a turbulent sea. Eventually, they worked their way, into the deepest parts of me, even into my bones where I can still feel them today.

In spite of all my ups and downs, I have never doubted the validity of those words. They sustained me through a recurrence of the disease several years later. They have sustained me through metastases to my liver, lymph nodes, and bone. They have sustained me through office visits with doctors and less-than-rosy medical reports. They sustain me more than eight years later as I approach my sixtieth cycle of chemotherapy. I know I will be fine.

This does not mean that I don't have my dark hours. I do. Sometimes often. They visit me like unwelcome guests when I least expect them. They often consume me to the point where I feel so helpless I don't know how I can possibly go on. This is when I turn to the other tools of support which give me strength, courage, and hope.

One of these tools was a welcome guest who visited me when I least expected it. Several years ago, I was taking a bath, feeling very vulnerable and sorry for myself. There is something about, the experience of not having hair and sitting like a baby in the bathtub which can bring out some very strong emotions.

At one point, I remember crying so hard that there was nothing left to cry with. Suddenly, I felt a warm, benevolent presence enter the room and fill it with a radiance that startled me. I thought to myself, "So this is what its like to go crazy." But the presence felt healthy and good, and it stayed with me the rest of the day. I stopped worrying about myself, and, when I smiled, it was a reaction of this calmer, inner state. If I felt the presence begin to drift away, I would close my eyes, quiet my thoughts, and ask it to come back. It always did and would replenish me with a sense of well-being, a feeling that everything would be all right.

Gradually, I began to take a little time each day to become quiet, close my eyes, and focus my thoughts. Over time, I realized that what I was doing was praying, and I would like to believe that the radiance I've come to know is God's love and healing warmth. My close friends tell me that I have a new found serenity about me. From my point of view, it is my faith in God which is shining through and telling me I will be fine.

I have found that the best time to bring myself into this state of prayer is before I fall asleep at night and after I wake up in the morning. During those times of the day, my mind and body become focused and relaxed. During these prayer periods, I try to let go and release my fears and uncertainties to God and express openly whatever it is that's causing me pain or concern.

Over time, I have found my faith and relationship with God to be the single most important source of my strength and will to carry on.

I get by with a little help from my friends.
-- The Beatles

As a single person without a significant other by my side every day, it's easy to feel like a solo dancer. I have been hesitant to enter into a new relationship while I am undergoing treatment. Perhaps it is a way of protecting myself, of conserving all my essential energies for the important task of getting well. But there are times when I see couples strolling together in Central Park or overhear conversations about everyday things like picking up bananas at the grocer when I can feel particularly alone and realize w, hat a boost it is to one's will to live to have one special person to love.

But, for now, my life has been blessed with something else: special people to love.

After I received my diagnosis, I made a promise to myself to eliminate negative individuals from my life and to welcome in those with life-affirming outlooks with whom I could share my precious time. I also evaluated my role in choosing some of those negative people and how my own behavior and patterns may have contributed to negative situations which perhaps adversely affected my health.

I also naturally began to feel close to those people in my life who had positive influences over me and to appreciate my relationships with them that much more. I learned to be more open with them and let them help me whenever I needed assistance, something which was a bit difficult for me as I have always been a very independent person. This experience, in turn, has also given them the opportunity to feel closer to me and be a part of my healing process, for which I am most grateful.

So far, the result of all this effort has been a more relaxed, less stressed-out me who has also enjoyed the adventure of experiencing new faces, places, and possibilities.

The people in my life come from all walks of life and every continent of the world. They are students and professionals, artists and business people, health care providers and homemakers. And when I feel my will to live begin to wane or waiver, I can ring them up or visit them and feel buoyed by their generous spirits.

Because of their presence, I have never felt the need to seek out a cancer support group. My friends and family are my support group, and, although they may never know exactly what I feel, I know they deeply care and are willing to be there for me whenever the need arises. They often tell me that I am so positive, but what they often don't realize is that they are an integral part of this positive outlook. Their words, gestures, and laughter have all gone a long way towards helping me sustain an independent, confident lifestyle as I face the challenges in my life.

One of the most important things I have learned from living with cancer is how to be my own best friend. This has been an essential component of maintaining my health and well-being, both mentally and physically.

The chemotherapy I receive every three weeks usually makes me feel depressed and extremely fatigued and consequently erodes my will to live. There have been days when I have felt too tired to read a newspaper or even make a simple phone call.

One particular tool I developed over time to help me through these rough periods has been a kind of internal cheerleading team that roots me on, picks me up when I am feeling particularly fragile, and gives me the assurance that I will be feeling much better in just a few more days. The team helps to buck me up and get me out of bed when I would otherwise prefer to hide under the covers -- even though sometimes I do just that -- and encourages me not to give in to myself too much.

This internal fan club has enabled me to sustain a more positive outlook during these difficult days.

But the hardest times for me have been when I have received a medical report which contains the words progression of disease. This happens when the particular chemo I'm taking suddenly ceases to be effective, and I must move on to other drugs. These times are often fraught with a range of very uncomfortable feelings, including fear, anxiety, and despair, and I need to use all the tools in my arsenal to prevent them from overwhelming me.

This is when I call on the group to recite the team cheer: "I have been here before, and I'm back here again, and I'll handle this the way I've handled it before. More than this I cannot do. The rest is in God's hands."

During the difficult times, I also need to pull into myself and seek solitude to rediscover my equilibrium and find what I call my peace. I often write poetry, which has been a meaningful outlet for achieving this peace. It enables me to frame words, feelings, and thoughts -- which at times seem out of control -- into a comprehensible structure I can see with my own eyes. This creative process has been extremely therapeutic for me and is something I always recommend to people going through similar crises.

Small Change

fat ladies
count calories
and their
rich men

for one
count time
the precious
of life

in passing hours

and respectfully
in the book of life

Diane Behar, Collected Poems (Lunenburg, Vermont: The Stinehour Press, 1998)

Perhaps the greatest fear anyone experiences who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease is that of losing control, feeling cut off from the world, and becoming too dependent on other people. This has certainly been true for me, and, for this reason, it has been very important for me to try to live as normal a life as possible.

Of course, when I am in the hospital, I'm not going to an art gallery. When I am very tired or feeling ill, I give myself as much rest as I feel I need. But I also continue to work, travel, and remain as fully assimilated as I can be in the world around me. This world includes both my private, immediate sphere, as well as the outer world of ideas and current affairs. This need to remain involved has enabled me to feel very much a part of the human race and connected to news and events taking place every day. Best of all, it has prevented the illness from taking over my life.

Maintaining a relatively active life, making time for yoga, meditation, and good nutrition, have also been essential will to live boosters for me. I have learned a number of visualization techniques I've incorporated into this health regime which have given me a greater feeling of control and mastery over the illness.

When I can integrate a well-balanced routine of all the above, the rewards are evident in terms of having much more energy as well as an overall feeling of calm and well-being. And, when I feel better, the quality of my life is also so much better.

It's a wonderful world.
- - Louis Armstrong

My will to live is synonymous with loving life. And perhaps the most precious and useful gifts I have been blessed with have been my curiosity about the world around me and my ability to appreciate beauty. In combination, they have resulted in a lifelong interest in the arts, in travel, and in people beyond my own backyard.

I am absolutely convinced that being surrounded by one's favorite sources of sensory stimulation has as much healing potential as any state-of-the-art therapy. For this reason, I immerse myself in those things which lift my spirits and help me feel larger than myself. I listen to my favorite composers, Mozart and Schubert, and soar with the angels. I visit art museums and thrill at the palette and brush strokes of the great masters. I take a walk in the woods and let the trees and breezes share their secrets with me. Or, I make a special trip to Paris to remember once again how a beautiful city can also feel like a best friend.

The list is endless. I'm fortunate that it is, for I never quite make it to the bottom and must, therefore, live a long and active life to experience all the wonders there are to enjoy.

One Cold Winter Evening

It is well past twelve o'clock, and I should be getting into bed, but I can't. I go through this most every night. Trading off precious time for the rest I know I need. But I need this, too! This is the very time of the day when my mind awakens from a different slumber and enters into a state of enchanted ecstasy that I cherish above most things.

As I sit here quietly, the music of Mozart transports me away on evanescent wings, one aria more transcendent than the next. And here in the safety of my room, I am free to wander across the spectrum of my imagination like a child on an empty beach.

I am truly free! Nothing will do harm to me now. Nothing. Not tonight. Not even the disease which is bargaining for my life.

Here, I am happy just to experience the passage of time. Moment to moment. Feel my breath. Touch my chest. Feel my heartbeat. The perfection of it all! It is so beautiful to behold! And yet, so simple!

This thing we call life is a gift. It is headlines. It enables us limited passage to this precious place we call earth. It is a miracle.

To have ever lived at all! In any century. At any time. Imagine that! To have ever experienced the capacity for feeling and thought and consciousness! To have entered this planet as a human being and not as a weed! To have participated. To have contributed! To have lived!

What more does anyone need to know? Just to appreciate and make the most of whatever is given to us. As best we can. For however long we can. And to give thanks for each and every moment of existence. Even the painful, teaching ones. And to turn one's life over to serving God as His instrument of peace and good.

Yes, Louis, it is a wonderful world.

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First appeared May 5, 2008; updated June 12, 2009