Susan was diagnosed in early 2000 with Stage 3 breast cancer. That diagnosis began a journey that has changed the course of both her and my life, and in very dramatic and different ways.
What started out as a “just check it out, it is probably nothing” suggestion by Susan’s internist who felt “something funny” during her routine annual exam, became over the course of six months a diagnosis of Stage 3, “triple negative” (they didn’t use the term then) breast cancer.
On May 2, 2000, Susan underwent a radical double mastectomy. Cancer was found in 7 of her lymph nodes, and during her very first examination by her oncologist, a post-mastectomy lump was discovered on her chest. It wasn’t supposed to be there.
It is hard to describe the darkness of that time, at least for me. The lights-went-out. Having lost my mother to breast cancer and Susan her mother as well to the disease, it was clear to me how this was going to end.
Of course, 19 years later, I have been proved wrong ----so far.
The impact on our lives has been enormous. On one hand, Susan is a model of stoic determination to do everything in her power to survive and thrive. From the day of diagnosis until today Susan’s focus is on maintaining a stable, joyful existence. She is awesome.
Me? Well for me my entire life has been transformed. Something happened that I still do not fully understand nor can I adequately describe, though I now know I am not alone. Survivorship, I have learned is not only a journey for the person with the cancer, it is also for all of those who exist in the circle of love for the cancer survivor.
The story of facing the loss of someone I love has become a journey of discovery and meaning. It has manifested itself in a written document, a play called The Actual Dance. With the help of acting coaches, improv classes and a talented “dramaturg”, I wrote a play and have been performing it now for six years. It has become my life purpose.
The Actual Dance tells the story of the love-partner in the cancer journey, from diagnosis through the survivorship process. The difference between Susan and me is that she will claim – and has in often dramatic fashion:
“Sam, I don’t have cancer anymore.” -- Perhaps that might be the survivor’s Gold Medal.
Me, well for me, I listen. You see my experience during her cancer was to figure out how I was going to be able to hold Susan as she took her last breath. How was I going to be able to interact with her as she transitioned from this life.
I learned what love really means. I have come to believe that two people can in fact become “soul mates” – meaning that our souls, our life-forces, our breath are intermingled, as I say in the play, “Each, and equal half of the other.”
My life since then has become, in part, one of listening. The metaphor of The Actual Dance – the ritual of holding the one you love as they take their last breath – is real to me and I think many of the love-partners of people who have or have had cancer.
To us, Survivorship means listening, another metaphor for waiting, listening for the sounds of an orchestra that plays whatever song we – Susan and I—will want to hear as we hold each other and move onto an ethereal ballroom dance floor, dance, swaying in each other’s arms, until she disappears turns into a white wisp of cloud that simply disappears.
Even today, I wait, and I listen for the orchestra that appears only when it is needed.
As the surviving love-partner I listen: “Is that them (the orchestra) playing? Are they back? Is the cancer back? Even today, 19 plus years later I listen, I listen with my heart where my love sits for the every so slight change in the balance of the Universe that will indicate that new and different orchestra has been called to form.”
The Actual Dance has been touring the Untied States for six years. It has recently been adapted to be performed by Chuk Obasi reflecting the journey through the eyes of an African American actor. The Actual Dance with Chuk Obasi will premiere in Washington, DC as part of the DC Black Theater and Arts Festival on June 23rd and 24th. Information is below. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here: