by Marie Munson
Five years ago I planted my feet firmly before a giant Sequoia in Yosemite National Park. Arms spread high and wide, I reached for the sky. The tree had a huge section missing from the center of its base, a scalpel-shaped wound three stories high. Yet, even with its core gutted and what remained blackened from fire, the Sequoia thrived. Two weeks away from having a large section of my own core cut out, I felt a certain affinity with the tree. I wanted to survive. I asked my husband to take a photograph of me in front of the soaring Sequoia.
The “me” in the photograph has no idea what she’ll be up against in the following months and years. She doesn’t know she’ll be asked to make impossible choices—to decide, for example, between “regular” adjuvant treatment of concurrent radiation and chemo and the more grueling but possibly more effective “high test,” which follows the “regular” with still more chemo.
The me in the photo has never heard of Foley catheters and is unaware that one will befriend her for a few weeks after surgery, during the day as a small bag strapped to her knee, at night as a large bag strapped to her bed.
The me in the photo doesn’t know she’ll meet up with neuropathy and lymphedema later that year. She’d be shocked to hear that she’ll have to wear compression hose and girdles for a few years to manage the latter. She’d laugh in disbelief if told that she’ll have to wear latex gloves to help her get those stockings on over her feet and up her legs. She doesn’t know she’ll become a patron of the Pelvic Pain Clinic or that she’ll consider turning 50 a gift rather than a curse.
The me in the photo doesn’t know that along with the physical pain and smoldering worry about recurrence and death, she will experience moments of gratitude for those she loves so immense that she’ll swear she feels her heart inflate. That a writing group called Cancer in Other Words will open up a world of creativity and precious connections to others dealing with cancer. She doesn’t know that cancer will provide material for fierce humor, such as when her friend Katie, who lives with muscular dystrophy, will tell her, “Now when I’m feeling down, all I have to do is think of you and I feel better,” and they’ll both burst into laughter.
When I look at this photo, I realize the Sequoia—whose image was seared into my mind—has stood by me like a friend, offering silent encouragement for five years. Five years of blood tests, CT scans and biopsies. Five years of scares but no recurrence. Five years. A five-year anniversary. The fifth year anniversary gift is wood. Wood! I’m going to hike in Yosemite this summer, find that giant piece of wood, and celebrate an anniversary.
Bio: Marie Munson lives in Oakland with her husband Steve; two cats: Boise and Memphis; and four koi: Django, Cheesecake, Grunt and Koi Roy. By day she is a consultant helping communities revitalize declining areas, and by night she is a practitioner of yoga, a member of the “Glenview Neighborhood Association Board of Directors,” a woodruffian, and a grateful member of the “Alta Bates Cancer in Other Words” writing group, so wonderfully led by Autumn Stephens. She’s looking forward to spending some time in the woods this summer.