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An Inner Fire
Susan Yoachum

Part One
I have metastatic breast cancer.

Metastatic is a tough word to spell and an even harder one to say, but its meaning is rather simple.

It means a runaway mine train is careening through my body. Or in clinical terms it means my cancer has spread to vital organs -- a phrase that somehow seems redundant.

I have known this since April 25, 1997, two weeks before I turned forty-two.

Not much seeped through the numbness at first, but I will tell you that one of my first conscious thoughts was, "No, I can't go yet. I haven't read all the classics."

As if to ward off evil spirits, I've gone out of my way since then not to read the classics, but rather to read an eclectic mix of books on healing as well as utter trash fiction. When I progressed to even darker humor, my first thought was at least I'll never have to learn the Internet. This thought has had a positive effect. My Internet coach says he'll have me Web-browsing in no time.

There are times when I feel like a whiner, self-absorbed and self-obsessed. That feeling peaked again when I got some bad news - - my cancer had spread further. When I entered the treatment room I was shaking with tears. With tears in his eyes, the technician I knew from my brain radiation hugged me, and my tears turned to sobs.

I lay face down for the treatment. Fifteen minutes later, at the end of the session, the pillowcase was soaked. I felt enormously sorry for myself.

But as I walked out of the treatment room, my friend the technician tapped me on the back and inclined his head toward a gurney. A boy of about twelve was lying there, waiting for his radiation.

I asked, "Will he be OK?"
The technician said he didn't know.

There are worse things than cancer spreading to your bones after all. I'm forging an uneasy peace with this cancer that defies answers.

How many times in therapy-kissed California have we heard that the only things we can control are our own responses to what befalls us? This diagnosis brought me up short again. After having thought for the first few days that my life was ending, I realized that it's not over till it's over -- and I began living again.

When I'm able to work, I find it intellectually challenging and the company of my colleagues and comrades comforting once again. My family and friends have appeared from everywhere to help share the burden.

Most often, they say that they don't know what to say. That's OK. Neither do I. I never had metastatic breast cancer before.

But I do know that when a friend hugs me close, I feel connected to life.

And in the middle of the night when the demons come, I take out all the cards and notes and phone messages, and for a few hours, I let all my loved ones carry the burden. And when I take it back up in the morning, it's not quite so heavy.

I have a very clear idea of the special quality of each day and I've been urged repeatedly to take a trip,which I'll probably do after my treatment schedule settles down. But, once again, I count myself lucky. I get up every day with a husband I love, work that fulfills me, and family and friends who nourish me. Paris, Venice, and the Great Barrier Reef beckon, but this is the good life, here in San Francisco.


Part Two
I'm an inhaler. I know this because a dear friend recently told me that I "inhale" life. For me, that's what the will to live is all about.

The will to live is a feeling of not being through yet, of there being things I want to do, people I want to love, places I want to see, and work, in the broadest sense, that I feel I've left undone. Metastatic breast cancer has both strengthened and weakened this God-given gift.

One thing that has strengthened my will to live has been the enormous support that I've gotten from my family and friends. It's made a really big difference to know that they're out there. When I'm feeling really low and thinking, Oh, I can't do this any more. This is just too hard, then I'll think about what somebody has said in a telephone call or left on a phone message or written in a card, and that tremendously strengthens my own will to live.

My husband Mike has been incredible. He's been a rock. He feeds me, he nourishes me in every possible way, and he has been quite remarkable. He really understood what my cancer meant before I did, and that helped me when I had to deal with some very hard truths about what it meant for me and for the rest of my life.

I'm coming to terms more all the time with the fact that I have an incurable illness. It can go into remission, but it's always there; it's chronic. I will always have it, and that's hard to accept.

There were a number of times when I fell asleep at night, and I wondered if I would wake up in the morning. I realize that at some point in time, that's probably going to be repeated, but this only strengthens my desire to get everything I can get out of each day. I like living.

Even though I'm always aware that I have cancer, I don't always think about the fact that I have cancer, especially when I go out to play in my garden or am having a good time playing Scrabble or reading or doing something else.

The will to live is an inner fire. Sometimes, it burns more brightly than others, but it is always coming from inside you. My will to live, in addition to the support, prayers, and good thoughts of my family and friends, is what keeps me going.

Part One from an article by Susan Yoachum San Francisco Chronicle September 14, 1997

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First appeared May 8, 2008; updated June 12, 2009