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Rethink: A Post about Life and Death and Fear

Rethink [1]I had a significant life scare recently, and I want to tell you about it and what I’ve taken away from it (so far).

First, the facts. My doctor had been keeping an eye on me throughout the spring months; I’d had some blood tests, an ultrasound, and some MRIs. Everything indicated that I had a benign cyst but that I should be watched, and I should have surgery to remove the cyst. While I was on vacation in the Adirondacks with my family a few weeks ago—three days into our trip—I received a call from my doctor informing me that one of my latest blood tests, called CA125, had leapt from a slightly elevated 37 to an extremely elevated ~2,500. My doctor was blunt: She had never seen a level that high not indicate ovarian cancer.

This changed everything.

I talked to my husband and my kids, and my in-laws, who were with us. I contacted others who needed to know, including some of my close friends, my editor, and my agent. And my mom, who is a nurse, and who went into full Mom Mode—looking for the best surgeons, the best nutritional information—and who I knew was afraid. This was a tough cancer [2] to beat.

My family and I considered leaving our vacation, going home. But I didn’t want to do that when we’d been looking forward to the trip for months, and my surgeon had said nothing would happen that particular week anyway; everything would start the following Monday—another blood test, a CT scan—followed by surgery on Thursday. We decided to stay and make the most of the trip—not ignore the news, exactly (it was hardly ignorable), but set it aside the best we could. Coexist with it. Enjoy ourselves despite it.

So we kayaked across lily-covered Rainbow Lake, playing hide-and-seek with a loon. We hiked miles of beautifully manicured trails, over bogs and marshlands filled with pitcher plants and strange mushrooms and orchids and rangy wildflowers. We became explorers, hunting for blueberries, and finding an abandoned old car in the forest and some buried glass bottles. We laughed. A lot. I met up with author friend Catherine McKenzie for a lovely lunch and chat in Lake Placid. I read a novel full of voice that I enjoyed. I even conducted some research for a fresh story idea. Ironically, I started writing out this idea in my new “Rethink” notebook the morning my doctor called with results of my blood work, after months of not writing any fiction. The first few pages are filled with story thoughts, names of characters, plot possibilities; and the last pages are brimming with information from my doctor—the times of my tests the following week, my surgery, etc…

It was harder to keep my mind occupied with Other once we were back home, but I did some things just for fun. For instance, I went on a photo shoot; I needed a new picture for the “about the author” page for my next book, The Moon Sisters, and I needed some new shots for a website update.

I also reached out to the WU contributors here, because they needed to know that Mama Therese might be out of the picture for a while. It won’t be a shock to you to learn that WU’ers rallied around me with offers to help, with expressions of goodwill, and promises to send me their best healthy vibes. (And, I swear, I felt them!)

I had the next round of blood tests. I had the CT scan. And something interesting happened: my CA125 went down to just about 900. As sure as my doctor had been that I had ovarian cancer, she was now filled with doubt because this had never happened before in her experience—the CA125 going down before surgery. Still, the CT scan showed a solid mass on my ovary.

I had abdominal surgery on Thursday, August 1st. When I met up again with my family after the surgery, they told me the good news: My surgeon hadn’t found any cancer when removing the cyst. (The spike in my CA125 appeared to have been caused by a burst endometrioma.) A full pathology report will be coming tomorrow, but we all firmly believe now that I’m going to be fine. Absolutely fine, after I recover from surgery, that is!

A miracle? Maybe. A medical anomaly? Definitely. Whatever happened, I’m beyond grateful for the outcome. And I’m forever changed by this experience.

For days I debated with myself over how to blog about this, as there didn’t seem to be a clear “lesson” or WU spin. (Rejected topics include such gems as How Crisis Affects Character, and Life is Stranger than Fiction. You see why they’re rejected, right?)

Here’s what I’ve come up with, what I think is worth saying.

For nine days, I thought I might die. I was afraid. I was so afraid that I might leave my kids without a mom and my husband a widower. Further down my fear list, I worried about chemotherapy. I worried that I might not be able to celebrate the release of The Moon Sisters [3] next March, and that I might never write another story–especially the newborn story in my Rethink notebook. I worried about Writer Unboxed, too.

Despite those fears, I lived fully in the moment those days before my surgery. I acted brave, and because I acted brave I began to feel brave. I even felt joy.

This taught me a big lesson about fear. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes it seems to be all-consuming. But it isn’t. There’s more inside each one of us; we are more capable than we believe of redirecting our thoughts, staying focused on the positive.

We are, all of us, stronger than we might think.

Know that, writer friends. We can use that knowledge to our advantage in so many ways, and certainly to push through our fear-built barriers as writers. I know I’m going to remember this lesson for the rest of my (hopefully long) life; fear is only as big as I let it become and only has as much power over me as I allow it to have.

One more thing. Though I kept my news relatively quiet, many of my colleagues here at Writer Unboxed and with the Fiction Writers Co-op [4] knew about my surgery beforehand and offered exceptional emotional support during those uneasy days. That meant the world to me, and I will forever be grateful to them for being a shore when I needed it. A few people who need to be singled out are Sarah Callender, Keith Cronin, and Jeanne Kisacky for helping to moderate comments at Writer Unboxed these last few weeks; and Denise Falvo, Lydia Sharp, Lara McKusky Taylor and Heather Webb for becoming the new tweeters for the WU account—and doing a fabulous job. I especially want to thank Kathleen Bolton for coming out of WU-retirement to help, and Jan O’Hara for not only being a jack-of-all-trades for us, but for becoming the WU Glue when it seemed we might fall apart—and who is just going to have to get used to hearing me say “Thank you!” even if she has told me to stop it already.

Miracles do happen.

Life really can be stranger than fiction.

There is tremendous power in community.

We each possess a wealth of grace and bravery and gladness.

What you think is true can be just as powerful as what is true.

And sometimes it’s important to Rethink.

Write on.

About Therese Walsh [5]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [6], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [7] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [8], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [9] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [10] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [11]). Learn more on her website [12].