Two years ago in February 2007, I ordered 100 seedling trees to plant around my five acres to replace old trees dying out, to create some shade on the prairie and to screen the view of the new ethanol plant a half mile down the road. The trees came in March and shortly after they were planted, I found out I had invasive ductal carcinoma — breast cancer.
I now call 2007 my “cancer year.” It was spent being sick and scared, agonizing over what treatment to have and how to access it, taking a leave of absence from my full time job in the summer and telecommuting part time while I stayed out of town to have daily radiation treatments for 6 weeks, returning to my office in the fall and trying to figure out if I had the energy to work full time. Because I wasn’t home all summer, nobody carried water to the seedlings, and they were left to struggle on their own to see if they could survive the drought conditions on the plains.
Through that winter, 100 orange landscaping flags stood out against the snow, signaling where each seedling had been planted. I would wait until spring to discover that all but six had survived.
I had been told that I might have fatigue lasting up to six months after my treatment ended. In February 2008, I expected to return to feeling “normal” and be able to put in a full days’ work and carry out my regular daily activities. In April, when I couldn’t summon the incentive necessary to do a good job for my employer, I gave notice, and at the end of the month I started a new, part-time job where I worked from home instead of having to go into an office each day. It was discouraging: I began to reconcile myself to the idea that this was as good as it was going to get. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel well – it was that I had only a certain reserve of energy, and when I used it up, it was like an empty gas tank. It was not the kind of tiredness I could push through and work beyond.
The seedling trees were left through the summer to thrive or not. I didn’t carry buckets of water to them. I did drag a hose around once in a while but the seedlings beyond the reach of the hoses were left on their own. It took three to four hours a week to mow and that was as much as I could get done. I did plant two more trees – tall seedless cottonwoods – by the grass in the backyard where they would get regular water and someday would provide shade where there had been nothing but a bare gravel driveway when I moved in to this house. Those two trees stood for two things – I had a sense of optimism, that I would be around to sit under their spreading branches, and I had the strength to dig the two deep holes by myself in the hard ground.
Soon after I planted those trees, I began to realize that each day I had a little more energy, I got more done, I felt like I might be capable of taking care of myself and my place, and things would continue to get better. I began to stop thinking of myself in relation to the cancer. I began to think that it might not affect the rest of my life.
I realized that the predictions about how long it might take for me to regain my energy after treatment were completely underestimated. I decided that it might be discouraging for patients to hear that it could take up to a year or even two to feel “normal” again. Because I hadn’t been told this might happen, when I passed the benchmark of six months without regaining my energy, I became discouraged and it was depressing to think I might never feel better again.
This is a beautiful morning on the plains. I have been outdoors watering the seedlings that were planted in my “cancer year.” Some of them didn’t make it through the winter. I had to hire someone to mow while I was out of town and some of the seedlings didn’t survive the mowing. But my grandson and I went out Saturday to take out the rest of the faded landscaping flags so we wouldn’t get the wires in the mower blades, and we put bright blue tape on the survivors. Most of them are hardy. I will drag a hose and carry buckets and water them and they will grow quickly now.
The year before I got cancer, a friend of mine who is a few years younger than I am said he was too old to plant trees. Planting trees is a perspective on life. No one should ever be too old to plant a tree. When I learned I had cancer, I wondered why I had just planted 100 seedling trees. Later I wondered how I would take care of them. Today I am watering them and looking forward to sitting under their shade.
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