Advance Notice

by Michelle Barte

Illustrated by  Anna Bu Kliewer

Illustrated by Anna Bu Kliewer

The open ocean, full of mystique and beauty, has always fascinated me. However, cruise ships, in my mind, seemed like a risky venture. Perhaps I had watched Titanic too many times. Despite my apprehension, I accepted an invitation for my first cruise, destined for the Caribbean. Minus some concerns about sinking and seasickness, I was quite excited! The ultimate irony is that 24 hours before leaving, I was to discover I would not be meeting an untimely demise at sea but on dry land, with a terminal cancer diagnosis.

It all began as I was rushing around preparing for my trip. I began having difficulty walking on my left leg. I was also having what I thought were muscle spasms in my back. Maybe it’s just stress, I thought, but I wanted it solved before I left. I went to a local urgent care center twice and they didn’t have a definitive answer. They recommended I go to the ER if I wasn’t better within 24 hours. I was taking over-the-counter pain relievers that had irritated my digestive system so bad that the pain was excruciating. In the end, that is why I was rushed to the ER. 

After testing and scans, the ER doctor told me I had lesions on my bones. It made no sense. I actually asked him if I had caught a parasite from my prior travels as I had been to Africa, Mexico, and Central America in the past. He basically walked out and sent in an oncologist and that’s when I knew. I heard my mother in hysterics outside the closed door of my room. The oncologist explained to me that I had metastatic cancer, which means I had cancer that had spread to my entire body. The lesions were on my spine, a small part of my skull, ribs, femur, and my arms. It was just a matter of finding out where it originated. However, I had a good idea.

I’ve always been extremely intuitive, and for the year prior I had felt like something wasn’t right. I did have a breast lump, but I thought it was a harmless cyst as I had been diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease many years earlier. I didn’t have health insurance so I put off getting it checked out.

The oncologist examined the lump and knew immediately, much to my surprise, that it was cancer. They admitted me to inpatient immediately for tests and a biopsy. They also gave me Morphine for the pain and sent in the hospital chaplain. It was an incredibly surreal scene and bizarre to know this is how it was all going to end. I was a wreck in the hospital and had a bad reaction to too much morphine. The constant poking and prodding made sleep elusive. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I got out of the hospital to live my “new normal” with Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer. The results came back that my cancer was “Estrogen Receptor Positive,” and thus far had metastasized to the bone only, sparing my organs. This was good news. This type of cancer responds to treatment that is less harsh than traditional intravenous chemotherapy. Additionally, since my cancer had spread, they were not going to perform any kind of surgery or mastectomy, which was a huge relief. They are able to keep the cancer at bay with hormone therapy and new targeted chemotherapy drugs. I was very blunt with my oncologist and asked her how much time I had left. She said worst-case scenario, three years; best-case ten years. I can’t begin to tell you how shocking it is to hear out loud how much time you have left.

I didn’t cry for a long time. I was mostly angry that my plans were interrupted as I had grand plans to buy a camper van to do some traveling as well as many other things. In the early stages of my diagnosis, I could barely walk. Each step was excruciating. Cancer was eating away at my bones—which was a very creepy thought. They had to induce medical menopause immediately, which is a nightmare. I’m 48 so the time was near, but they managed to induce it in two months. I have to get a shot every month to keep it going. The hot flashes are brutal! I’m a fiercely independent person, and it was hard to accept that I needed help for many things.

I am not religious, but I am very spiritual. I subscribe more to Buddhist philosophy if I have to choose. However, I started freaking out about the death process and dying in pain. Much to my relief, I found out they just pump you with painkillers in the end and I probably won’t feel a thing. I read and watched every near-death experience I could get my hands on. It actually brought me a lot of peace. Almost everyone that has experienced a near-death episode stated they didn’t want to return to their earthly existence. So, I figured it can’t be that bad, and perhaps will be an amazing transition and adventure. A reassuring concept in Buddhism is an understanding that everything is in a continuous state of change and impermanence. Human life and nature embody this concept in the aging process and the cycle of repeated birth and death. Time is an illusion, as are the past and future. There is really only Now, where everything is original and new.

Once I accepted my situation, I realized I was actually quite fortunate that the Universe had opted to give me advanced notice of my demise. I had the chance to ponder how I want to live those remaining days. I had no regrets as I had always taken chances in life and followed my own course. I’d traveled and had adventures. I’ve met incredible people all over the world. I’ve taken risks in my career that were fruitful in the end, even when no one understood my choices as the time.

I am currently responding well to treatment. I have a phenomenal and caring medical team who are keeping my cancer at bay for the moment. I can now walk and even hope to hike again. I’m completely independent for the moment, and I am even still working, as I can’t afford quite yet to go on disability. I am fortunate that I work from home and have supportive colleagues. Now, I want to relax, enjoy my friends and family, continue creative pursuits, finish those books I’ve been meaning to read. I choose to eliminate drama and negativity. I have an inside joke with my loved ones from that viral YouTube video of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins being interviewed after having escaped a fire in an apartment complex—Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m almost more content now than before cancer. 

As they say, life is short. Take risks. It doesn’t really matter what other people think in the end. Everyone has their own drama. Don’t procrastinate your joy. I leave you with the following quote by Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as The Buddha: “Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.”

Illustrated by Anna Bu Kliewer