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Many Shades of Different

Editor’s Note: This piece was a finalist in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

Having stage IV cancer at twenty-one made me different from my peers.

I was already different: By the eighth grade, due to my mother’s quest for greener pastures, I’d attended twelve schools, many of them outside of the US. I was a Yankee when my family lived in Australia, but also when we lived in Florida. I was a gringa when we lived in Mexico, then in Peru. In places where English was spoken, I stood out because of my accent. In places where Spanish was spoken, although I became quite fluent, I was clearly a foreigner.

My wandering existence led to a kind of cultural ignorance: I was the only eighth-grader at Winter Park Junior High who hadn’t heard of Johnny Carson.

Before that, my parents’ divorce in the mid-Sixties (when I was three) had not set me apart, particularly. Divorce was not as common then, but I wasn’t the only kid in class with divorced parents. The instability of my childhood was a more obvious difference. That I ended up in the care of extended family on several occasions also set me apart. I felt alone as a traumatized kid, not knowing then how very common neglect and sexual and physical abuse are. It turned out that having to keep secrets didn’t actually make me different, but at the time it sure felt different.

Being diagnosed with metastatic large-cell lymphoma at age twenty-one made me different from anyone I knew.

I was a humanities major at Johns Hopkins University and had spent the summer after my junior year in San Miguel de Allende. I’d been feeling increasing pressure in my lower abdomen, but was warned that I shouldn’t go to a doctor unless I was dying. By August, when I returned home, I had a cantaloupe-sized tumor affecting my kidney function, and the pain was unbearable.

Most of the tumor was low in my pelvis, and the CT scans hadn’t revealed its full extent: I shuffled between a proctologist and my gynecologist, who described my vagina as “full of golf balls.”

Before this, I hadn’t known anyone with cancer; I hadn’t even known the word oncologist. But now I did. During the exploratory laparotomy, my right ovary was removed, and my left ovary was moved up under my ribcage to protect it from radiation, if that should be necessary. After three weeks at Union Memorial, I was transferred to Johns Hopkins for my cancer treatment. Both as an undergraduate and as a patient, I was lucky to benefit by Johns Hopkins’ excellence.

Facing the possibility of my own death was a wakeup call. While we waited for a diagnosis and a plan, my mother read to me from Ram Dass’s Grist for the Mill: Awakening to Oneness. I was moved by the idea of a spiritual path, by the idea that my life’s unfolding was about learning to be fully myself, and that my actual life work was to be in the present moment. Whether I lived or died, I resolved to be my most authentic self in whatever time remained.

With my pain managed by morphine prescribed by my surgeon, I came to understand that the differential diagnoses being considered didn’t really matter. What was important was that I was here in each moment, that I’d had an extraordinary life, and that nothing is promised.

Ten months of aggressive chemotherapy followed—a protocol newly available after successful clinical trials at the NIH. My oncologist wasn’t sure that I would survive the treatment, much less the cancer. But a week after the first infusion, my pain was gone—a very promising beginning.

Still, chemo was grueling. After each outpatient treatment, I would vomit for hours. The antiemetic drugs didn’t help much; the nausea would wake me from a deep sleep, and I’d make it to the toilet just in time, with my mother meeting me in the bathroom to keep me company. She’d hand me warm washcloths to comfort and clean myself, then I’d go back to bed until the next wave of retching arose.

My hair came out in handfuls. I discovered that wearing a wig was not for me: That fall, I had a dozen berets in jewel tones, and that spring, I added straw hats in pastels. My monthly inpatient treatments were made more bearable with a soft pink blanket, a favorite perfume and a special tube of Chanel lipstick.

In the oncology-clinic waiting room, I felt glad to be different: Except for my cancer and the treatment’s side effects, I was young and healthy: Sometimes I’d be out dancing on a Friday evening.

I downed hundreds of dollars of supplements; my doctor told me I had the most expensive urine in the hospital. He said my periods would go away and perhaps never come back, but they started again before the ten months were up. I was definitely different from his other patients: My mother was juicing for me, cooking healthy meals and managing all the supplements. I did bodywork and focused on visualizing myself as healthy.

I was given a social worker as part of the support team; nobody else I knew had a social worker. She was warm and kind, and I felt deeply grateful for her experience and wisdom. She told me that a study showed that the people who did the best getting through cancer were the fighters, and the people who did next best were those in denial. She strongly encouraged me to stay in school as much as I could, settling the question of whether to go to New York for treatment or remain in Baltimore.

I’d lined up an amazing schedule for my senior year: my favorite professors, exciting classes, and time for my work-study job and my friends. In the end, I managed just one class that fall, and three in the spring. In being my most real self, I saw some friends leave my orbit—they found the ways that I was different too intense. Others were drawn to the intensity.

I got through it as I’d gotten through other challenges: by keeping my head down, focusing on doing the next thing and looking for silver linings.

“Weren’t you scared?” people have asked. When I was a child, it wasn’t safe to feel scared—safety came from being at the top of my class, a hyper-responsible “good girl.” And as a college-age cancer patient, getting on with the fight against my illness and attending classes took everything I had, leaving no space for fear—no space to be scared, for instance, that my veins were deep and increasingly scarred, and that getting an IV line was arduous, sometimes taking three nurses and six tries.

The whole thing was hard, and it was also a great clarifier. To walk up to the edge and peer into the void—to receive the message that to be here is a gift: That is what made me different at twenty-one.

There is a photo of my classmates and me on the beach at Ocean City during Senior Week that spring. My head is bald, and I look happy—like a senior celebrating being almost done. I still had two semesters to go, and it appeared that I’d be around to finish my degree.

That August, my mother and I celebrated the end of chemo with a month-long trip to Europe. My hair was just coming back in. The first eighth of an inch had no pigment, and when my dark hair began to show, the clear tips made for a very chic look. It was the summer of 1984, and I felt pretty hip in London.

I write, now sixty-two, and warmed by the same soft pink blanket.

Cali Gaston is a practitioner of Five Element acupuncture. “I live in a home that my husband, Blaise, and I designed and built. I kayak and walk whenever I get the chance. Seizing the day, most days! Nine years ago, Blaise and I were both diagnosed with breast cancer in the same week. What I understand now about who I am is that I’m not actually different. Sure, it’s highly unusual to have breast cancer with my husband, and my history doesn’t look like the usual garden variety. The thing is, we are all suffering, we all have some joy, we all have bodies that experience the effects of time and gravity. We are not so different from one another.”


18 thoughts on “Many Shades of Different”

  1. Linda Maureen Sommers

    So much I didn’t know about your past. Thank you for sharing a side of your life that I wasn’t aware of. You are a treasure.

  2. Dear Cali,
    I have known you for years, but I didn’t know this part of your story. It informs so much about your grounded presence. Love you. Karen

  3. Beautiful and moving. There were many messages you could’ve taken from the experience, and you chose the message that to be here is a gift.

  4. Thank you. This is a beautiful teaching story. One never knows all that is behind any one of us until it is shared….an act of courage and a furthering of life.
    It is beautifully written and inspiring to see how you have worked with and transformed the suffering you were given. A bow to you!

  5. This may be the most moving essay I have ever read on Pulse, and
    I have been reading it since the very first issue!

    Not only is it moving, it is brilliant. The writer’s understanding of
    herself, and her life, is extraordinary. She reminds me of
    my favorite novelist, George Eliot.

    Your husband is very lucky to have you in his life! (And my guess is
    that you are lucky to have him).

  6. “The whole thing was hard, and it was also a great clarifier. To walk up to the edge and peer into the void—to receive the message that to be here is a gift: That is what made me different at twenty-one.”
    That says it all and is a clarifier for all of us. Thank you for that gift.

  7. Cali, you continue to inspire as you share your stories. I am grateful to know you and read your words and hear your authentic voice.

  8. Carolyn Engelhard

    People sometimes ask me why I continue my decades long regular acupuncture sessions even after painful medical conditions have “resolved.” I respond that the practice brings me a deep energetic peace with self. This realized state lies as much with the practitioner as the practice and this essay, Cali, is emblematic of all that you are and bring to those of us fortunate to be in your care. Thank you for sharing this wisdom on and off the table.

  9. Dear Cali,
    Thank you so much for this beautiful essay – you have had an amazingly “different “ life. And in the telling you add inspiration to Ram Dass’ encouragement to BE HERE NOW.
    I am honored to know you and to have received your healing needles!

  10. An amazing essay from an amazing woman. I am in remission from a late-stage lymphoma, and your essay gave me so much hope. Thank you

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