Why 2+2 Does Not Equal 4, and Other Things I've Learned After a Year in the Cancer World

Yesterday we had a few preliminary appointments as we begin this new clinical trial journey. Tommy was poked and prodded as they conducted scans, blood tests, and EKGs. I sat in the lobby holding his coat with the other caregivers. As I looked around the room I saw the familiar determined anxiety on their faces that I have felt the past year. We are always the youngest people in the office, but I feel like a veteran at this point. I think it must be the timing, but it feels like we’re gearing up to begin ‘second semester’ after a holiday break. We’ve rested, prepared, and completed all the winter assignments, but we would really rather stay home.

I’ve been struggling the past few months with feeling like I’m living a double life. How do you live a full and happy day-to-day while you have a monster ball of anxiety and fear in your stomach? How do you achieve the balance between making the most of it and preparing for the fight?

At first, I coped by forgetting. A friend who has been dealing with a similar situation once told me, “It’s extremely possible everything will turn out just fine, and won’t you feel silly wasting all that time worrying about the what ifs.” This became my mantra for much of last year. I was able to use this to push cancer to the back seat (where it belongs) and live ‘normally’. This only works for me for so long. It’s great advice that has helped me through many difficult moments, but sometimes I can take it too far. I try to completely forget, and then when I least expect it, the passenger in the back seat dives for the wheel. I suddenly find myself being steered in a direction I did not want to go. I am thrown back into the fear, without warning, and this can be scary.

A more recent method I’ve been practicing is to allow the fear to sit with me for a minute. Like a hitchhiker, I allow it to hop in the car, acknowledge its presence, remember that it does not serve me, and then drop it off at the next exit. This system seems to work better for me. I feel more in control. I tell myself “You do not need to push this thought away. It is real, you’re allowed to feel it, but it does not have to drive this car. Allow it to stay a moment, settle on your heart, and then release it. Drive on as you were.” This makes experiencing fear feel less ‘wrong’. I used to berate myself for letting fear ‘win’ in those moments, but that only made it worse. Choosing to be more gentle with myself has made navigating these impossible roads less difficult.

I had drinks with a friend about a month ago. I was deeply rattled by the recurrence and felt myself swinging dangerously from one lane to the next, not knowing what emotion was going to be in control at any given moment. I felt like life was drowning me, and I was desperately searching for a life raft. I knew this friend had experienced difficult times in her life, and I was clinging to every word of her advice as if each had the opportunity to save me. I wanted to know how to make this better. What I could do to change this? She told me that during her experience with trauma she learned that 2+2 does not always equal 4. I wrestled with this, and at first didn’t understand. Does this just mean life isn’t fair? I didn’t want that answer. She told me that in life we expect every problem to be solved by a certain number of tears, a certain amount of money, a certain number of prayers, or a certain number of laughs- this just isn’t the case. 2 + 2 does not always equal 4. Some problems don’t add up. The math just doesn’t work.

You might think that this would dishearten me, but it didn't. I realized that much of my frustration was coming from seeking out the right math. How could I give more of myself to the problem to make it add up? Would I ever be able to give enough tears, money, time, prayers, laughter, hugs, or love to fix this? I allowed myself to release the idea that I needed to solve cancer. The math will never add up. All we can do is try our best. PRACTICING balance rather than FINDING it. The more you practice balance, the easier it is to feel balanced. Long story short, I don’t have the answer. I lean on family, friends, and my husband when I need extra support, and stand on my own two feet when I feel secure enough to do so. Sometimes to feel whole, 1 does not equal 1. Sometimes it takes 1 me + 1 friend. Sometimes it takes 1 me + 1 mom. Sometimes it takes 1 me + 1 Tommy + 1 shared plate of fajitas. And sometimes it takes 1 me + 100 members of my support system. That’s okay. Math has never been my strong suit.