The Hard Way

A photo by Ales Krivec. unsplash.com/photos/4k-U1Wp2d00

“There’s the gradual, long way up the mountain—and that’s the easier way.”

My oncologist is looking at me very sternly, which I know is difficult for him. He’s very nice, and this is the closest thing he’s ever given to a lecture.

“And then there’s the steep, fast climb—and that’s the harder way. You’ve been used to the hard way,” he says and he is right.

I have grown used to being blasted with chemotherapy drugs. Drugs that fill my mouth with ulcers so that some days I can’t speak. Drugs that scorch my skin so that some days I can’t walk. But that’s not what he’s trying to say. He knows I’m hooked on the hard way.

“I’d rather you kill me trying to cure me,” I tell him and there is a long silence afterward. We both know what he should say and I’m grateful that he doesn’t. They are not trying to cure me. I’m not going to get to the top of the mountain.

He has been trying to lower my drug dosage, space things out, and ease up a little on the regimen but he knows this is tough for me. I liked the idea that I was doing the harshest thing, that I was really getting somewhere. But now it’s time for me to accept something harder: I’m not sure I can do this much longer.

It’s like this: my treatment has been like swinging on three vines. Two chemotherapy drugs and one immunotherapy drug. I already had to stop one drug because I was losing all feeling in my hands and feet. Snip snip. And now I have to think about cutting out the other chemotherapy drug. I’ll be swinging on that one immunotherapy vine, hoping it holds me up. Please God, make it work.

“So if we stop chemotherapy now and my tumors grow….” I say uncertainly.

“Then we can restart chemotherapy. Worst case scenario, your tumors grow 20 percent by the next scan,” he says quickly.

“But if the immunotherapy drug doesn’t work then I am going to die anyway.” My voice sounds flat and matter-of-fact, even to me. “Right? I mean, the chemo drugs are already fading.”

He is trying to reassure me but I can’t quite hear the words. I am staring at my hands, puffed with chemo toxins and the color of rhubarb. I have come to the end of what I know how to do. I know how to suffer. I know how to make the best of things. But I don’t know how to do the most basic thing—I don’t know how to stop.

—–

I am sitting across from the man who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of my particular form of cancer, the cell disorder that caused these tumors to bloom. For all his many efforts, his thousands of hours in the lab, I have brought him cupcakes. With sprinkles. It’s a fair trade.

We have both, as it turns out, spent a lot of time walking up the edge of things, and we are talking about what it means to face facts.

“I’m not sure I want to know what happens if I stop chemotherapy, but at the same I want to get it over with,” I confess. “What did you do?”

“I went to work,” he says, and I realize the weight of what he is saying. His office is plain and sensible, which confirms something I already know about him five minutes into our conversation. He is there to work.

In the worst moments of his life, he put one foot in front of the other. He tasked himself with a series of responsibilities that ultimately gave me back this year. And maybe many more. But what I loved more than anything was that he did it without knowing it would matter. He marched forward because it was the best he could do.

“We’re all terminal,” he says simply, and it answers my unspoken question. How do you stop? You just stop. You come to the end of yourself. And then you take a deep breath. And say a prayer. And get back to work.

21 thoughts on “The Hard Way

  1. Carly

    Not going to lie, reading this hurts our hearts but when you write about it we can have a better understanding of what you are going through. I pray you get some relief from all the treatment pain soon. I Love you Kate and Fam.

    Reply
    1. Jim

      Reality doesn’t simply shear away hope. My limited chaplaincy time with cancer patients taught me it just shears away false hope. I was in a hell of a crisis with a job loss, an engagement ending, and a shocking revelation of the human person my Dad really was. And I had the clearest of dreams. And my by then deceased wonderful dog, appeared in the dream and lead me up an awesome mountain by a spiraling trail. And new hope settled on me like new fallen snow. May you reach for it and be made new.

      Reply
  2. Jennifer Findlay

    I need a moment to take a deep breath… I’ll be back with the cheer you up, behind-your-back conviction that I really do sincerely mean. We’re all here cheering for you.

    Reply
  3. Elly Tucker

    I have to admit. I wait for your words. Not like sitting by the computer waiting. But when I see your name pop up, I go off to myself and open the site, as one would open a gift at the holidays (I would say Chanukah, but your dad wrote the seminal book on Santa Claus and Christmas, so I will just leave it as “holidays”). I read each word carefully, as though I were consuming fine chocolate. Then I let the words roll around in my being and I start to draw pictures in my head about healing, tumors shrinking, dissolving, good lab reports. If I have to have thoughts, it doesn’t cost extra to have positive ones.
    Climb that mountain, Kate, however you need to….fast or slow. But know that I want to go with you on this journey. A stranger you have never met, yet longs to hold you. And tell you how precious you are. And how I look forward to reading your words.

    Reply
  4. Justin Davis

    Dr. Bowler, I really don’t have words to describe what I feeling as I’m following your words. I have so much admiration and respect for you and just want the best and as much grace as possible as you go through the ups and downs and vine swinging. Just being yourself during in the one class I had with you while I was in the throes of depression made at least one part of my weeks easier during that time. I wish there were somethjng I could do to return that kindness and light somehow. There are so many things I’d like to say, that I know won’t change anything, but know that you are loved, and cheered for, and prayed for by so, so, many people who want to see you through.

    Reply
  5. Sharon Massey

    Kate, your sharing of your journey is as beautiful and selfless as you are. There are gifts in your writing for all who read, and I am constantly touched by your proximity to God throughout this journey. You are truly a gift in my life.

    Reply
  6. Soong-Chan

    Ow. My heart hurts. So many who would take the longsuffering journey for you if we could. Frustrating that all I can do is stand on the side of the road and pray and cheer. Praying on and cheering on.

    Reply
  7. Jennifer

    I have no words of wisdom or anything useful. I just wanted to tell you that you are a gifted writer and a very special person. I wish this was easier. You have lots of people rooting and praying for you.

    Reply
  8. Karen Bender

    Kate,
    The road we travel is long or short, filled with pits or pleasant vistas, but we all walk it. Your road has been so arduous, painful and frightening. You are facing this with a grace and courage and openness I have seldom seen. May God grant you fewer pits, more beautiful moments, less painful struggle and whatever else you need to walk this road, however long or short it should turn out to be. Bless you and thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  9. Mikael Broadway

    Going to work is good. Or if you can’t, doing something else you can do. Work or not, living surrounded by love keeps us.

    Reply
  10. Andy Draycott

    Thank you Kate, for your gift of words, displaying truth in its hard, messiness and yet with loving appreciation. Your sharing, even in pain, is deeply touching.

    Reply
  11. Terri Elton

    Love you girl. Saddened by these words and at the same time grateful for your honest optic way with words. Holding you and your precious family in prayer!

    Reply
  12. Lindley Curtis

    Kate, somehow I went through Div School without having the chance to know you, but I am joining countless others–friends and strangers alike–in surrounding you with love and prayers. Thank you for your courageous, thoughtful words.

    Reply
  13. Lori Lund

    Kate, once again your open heart and honest words have touched so many of us. And like everyone else, I read your words with that sinking feeling of “Oh no, Lord!” Which at once numbs and moves us. I don’t have any words of wisdom for you, but wanted to share the image that came to my mind. That of a marathon being run-on prayers. I’m usually awake all thru the night and so will take the prayer baton from someone else who has drifted off to sleep. When I have to sleep (or use the bathroom!) I will pass that baton off and trust He will place it with another of your prayer warriors. And in this way, you will be surrounded and uplifted in prayer 24/7. Follow the good doctor’s advice. Then spend your days and nights doing whatever God grants you the strength to do. Don’t feel you have to return to work, only do so if that feels the most ‘comfortable’. Now, if you will excuse me-I am going to try and pray extra strength into a vine known as ‘immunotherapy drug #174’!! Hugs!

    Reply
  14. Alexis C.

    Thank you for sharing, Kate. Thank you for communicating the weight and helping us to glimpse and feel some of the heaviness of what you are bearing in your heart, soul and body. Praying for you and your family as you seek to hope, work and live.

    Reply
  15. Lisa Tanico

    Dr. Bowler, I sat in the back of the lecture hall with the other introverts during American Christianity a couple of years ago and you won’t know me from Adam’s housecat. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the strength you reveal, and courage the likes of which I’ll never know, I’m sure. You are simply amazing, and if you ever think you might not ever touch anyone’s life (which is nonsense), please know that you’ve touched mine. Even back in American Christianity class 🙂 You are one unstoppable force.

    Reply
  16. Rennie Salata

    Dr. Bowler, I never met you during my time at Duke, but I always heard wonderful things about you. I graduated with an M.Div. in 2011 and have been in pastoral ministry ever since. I’ve only tacitly followed your journey with cancer, but as I was working on my sermon for tomorrow, your name and story came to mind as and example of faith that perseveres in the face of uncertainty. I thought of you and your words as an example of grace in the face of distress. I thought you might have something to offer me and my congregation as we consider 2 Timothy 1:1-14 and what it means to be ashamed of the gospel. And I was right. This post, though heart wrenching and uncomfortable spoke volumes to me about the life of faith even as you shared the rawness of your body and soul. But believe it or not, it’s not your story I want to tell tomorrow. I want to tell the story of your oncologist as you tell it so beautifully, “But what I loved more than anything was that he did it without knowing it would matter. He marched forward because it was the best he could do.” May you find the grace to stop, the faith to hope, and will to keep marching forward. It’s the best any of us can do.

    Your brother in Christ,

    Rennie Salata

    Reply

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