Dia de Los Muertos

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This is my port. I began my second round of chemo October 26. They say it will be worse. Cancer treatment is relentless. It connects straight into my jugular. No joke. They are seriously tapped in.

In the last 5 months, on multiple occasions, I’ve become aware of the word “persevere” penetrating all levels of thought and emotion. During the most difficult moments it has begun as a whisper, a faint insistence that I get out of bed, take a shower, eat, get off the couch, indulge in basic self care, etc. As necessary the whisper becomes stronger and more firm in its demands that I go for a walk, wash my clothes, phone a friend to make plans, and nourish my brain with something other than “Law & Order: SVU.” In other words, reengage in life and do the things that spark happiness and harmony. Persevere.

I’m finding that perseverance brings the greatest rewards when measured against it’s alternative. The first dose of my second round of chemo was administered last Monday, and it wasn’t easy. A 5 hour infusion of one drug in clinic, then 48 hour infusion of the second that I took out into the world with me until Wednesday. These doses left me with the sensation of having been beaten. I felt nauseated, incredibly fatigued, and lightheaded for 4 days. It was like a bad flu. The kind that keeps you in bed for days, calling in sick to work and groaning with every move. In the end you’ve lost 4 or 5 pounds and are congratulating yourself for effectively taking that much needed cleanse you’ve been promising yourself since New Year’s. In my case, I realized I would be engaging in this cleanse every other week through early spring. Daunting.

But on Friday morning, I set the serious intention of dragging my shambling carcass out of the house to my friends farm for her families biannual, highly anticipated Dia de Los Muertos celebration. As I was mentally committing to this endeavor, my downstairs filled with rain water from a torrential downpour, and as I turned green from nausea, I mentally packed my bag while sucking up water with the shop vac. While frantically moving items from closets that were an inch deep in water and cursing the flimsy cardboard boxes that were never quite unpacked in the garage, I made a quick grocery list and set my time of departure. No matter how tired I was or poorly I felt, I was going to this party because somehow I knew that it was the only way to get better.

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This meticulously crafted altar is easily one of the most profoundly moving experiences I have ever known.

The first night and following day I was still fatigued and mildly nauseated, but I was surrounded by friends and beauty. The effect was greater than any anti-nausea medication or pain pill. As I walked through the barn housing a meticulously curated altar where guests were invited to place pictures and mementos of loved ones who had passed, I was struck by the number of young faces in the mix, and I could only imagine how many had succumbed to cancer. And I cried. I cried because in the last month I have often forgotten to be grateful that my diagnosis isn’t fatal and never has been. I cried for the pain of the people who loved them. I cried because I got lucky in spite of the fact that colorectal cancer is so often misdiagnosed and untreated in individuals under 50. I cried because I got to bear witness to the fact that they lived and were loved. And in the midst of that, I began to find my joy and hope again.

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Healing spaces are incredibly important when your soul is aching. Cancer happens to make ones soul ache.

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Fact: I am absolutely crazy about each and every one of these people.

Persevere. Feel the pain and heartache and sadness that comes with this disease process. Then move on. My scars will heal, the port will be removed, and my body will continue to adapt to it’s new landscape. My picture was not on that altar this year, and for that, and so many other things, I’m grateful.

3 thoughts on “Dia de Los Muertos

  1. Betty Ladner

    Your writing is so moving. You should honestly turn all of this into a book to be published. I know many books have been written about different life experiences, but your writing is joyful at the same time describing such a painful. Horrible experience! I am so so so happy you have such beautiful friendships!

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  2. Kay Schanzer

    Shelby, first I am so sorry you are having to fight for health coverage. On the other hand, anger can be good for the soul when directed at the right target. My daughter who had a brain tumor removed is dealing with the same thing….just insane. Can you imagine if we had not had affordable health care you could not even get insurance after BCBS dropped you. I hope lots of people read your blog…maybe a grassroots movement can begin through your articulate way of expressing your frustration. Love your blog…read it frequently and insurance cannot provide the wonderful friends you have. Thank about you often. Kay

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    1. Shelby Walters Post author

      Thank you, Kay! I’m grateful everyday for universal coverage and that under current policy I can’t be refused coverage in the future. It would be terrifying to be without healthcare! In all honesty, if I were queen of the U.S., we would have a single payer system, and I’ve felt that way for years. In the meantime, people need to be aware that they must advocate for themselves, or have someone they trust to advocate for them. This business is tricky!

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