My body has been through some difficult times already. There came a point where people began remarking: “Of course, this happened to you. If it’s extreme/random/unlikely, it’s going to happen to Ashleigh.”
Now, this looks harsh written out. At first it didn’t feel harsh; it felt true. And the people who say this do not mean to be hurtful AT ALL. In fact, I think they are trying to offer a kind of witnessing. They are not wanting to dismiss that, in some lights, I’ve had more than my “fair share.” [Although there is no “fair share”, in reality.]
And I can’t blame them. I have lived with an attitude toward my body that ranges from resignation to infuriation. When I was 11-12, I developed a mysterious infection that turned out to be a kind of pneumonia transmitted by cats.… The year I was 18, I had a series of concussions from skiing and sports that culminated in a camping concussion and resulted in an extremely difficult head injury. I had to put off university for a year because I couldn’t make simple decisions or make sense of a computer screen. [Thankfully, my brain fully healed with the exception of number retention: a VERY minor although often humbling blip to live with.] Just before Jordan and I got married, I developed mono: a totally typical thing for a college student living with how many?—four?—other young women in a two bed apartment and not getting ANY sleep. BUT. Wait for it. My liver and my spleen swelled up to such extraordinary sizes that my stomach collapsed, and all sorts of specialists paraded through my room to poke and prod and look at my “most unusual case.” Our wedding was postponed and we took a wheelchair on our honeymoon. Each of my pregnancies has involved HG, to increasing extents. My second trimester with Nienna was complete bedrest because there was a growth which made losing our baby the likely scenario (thank God, she is now a thriving eight year old! I have not had to experience that searing, unbelievable loss.) During my pregnancy with Cressida, I developed kidney stones. Again, not uncommon during pregnancy. But mine blocked my ureter, causing my left kidney to rupture, and I was close to being septic. [Don’t do that. It’s really hellish.] When I was at the end of my second trimester with Skandar, I had an appendectomy, which, amazingly, is not super uncommon.
Neither is cancer. Cancer is very, very, common. We are all living so close to it.
However, I am part of a new cohort of otherwise healthy men and women in their twenties and thirties developing colorectal cancer. I fit none of the risk factors. In the past, the profile of someone with my type of cancer and stage would be at least a couple decades older than myself — until recently, when people like me began showing up in higher numbers, raising many questions in the medical community.
Now that you have a litany of my strange medical issues, you can see why someone might say, “Of course this is happening to Ashleigh.”
The unintended side-effect of that attitude is that I began to feel this shame towards my body. I began to feel an unhealthy resignation. Rather than flexibility and adaptability, this kind of observation began to make me feel like giving up.
Child-birth and running were two of the first things that began to help me change my perspective. Not only could I come face-to-face with hard things — I could choose how to engage them, and I could kick ass. Ask my older brothers: there has always been this side to me that just won’t give up, even when all the chips are down and it’s clear I’ve lost. [Such as when a boy 4-6 years older than me was sitting on top of me, pounding me, and I’d still be trash-talking.] When I started giving that side of me its voice, I began seeing all these things as things I’ve overcome and I began to see myself as strong, rather than as weak and shameful and not enough. After Nienna was born, the subsequent health issues each began teaching me and leading me towards a lot of beautiful truths and experiences. Even as they totally tore me down. I am NOT saying I floated blissfully through these events. These beauties are the beauties that come out of engaging with the pain, and letting others join me.
In the first weeks after dropping the bomb “I have stage IV colorectal cancer” on my dear ones, our little family was flooded with so much kindness and support. Some of the first face-to-face encounters that stand out to me include those, who, like my father-in-law, have seen me walk (or army crawl) through health storms before. He hugged me and told me, “You are brave. You can do this. You are one of the strongest women I know.” There were other types of first responses that also have really helped and stood out, but, the ones that relate to my strength and courage are the ones that touch on this new thing:
Compassion for my body.
You see, one of the side effects of seeing myself as strong and brave, is that I can look at my body from a position of agency and strength, rather than of resignation and shame.
Our dear friends sent Jordan and I to a day at Thermëa Spa (oh, heaven!), and my sister-in-law provided child care. One of the spectacular gifts of Jordan and I both identifying as Nines on the Enneagram, is that we can really relax together. Towards the end of the day, Jordan asked me how I was doing. I told him that what kept reverberating around my heart and head was, “My poor body,” along with other sentences of kindness, compassion, and gentle-heartedness towards this cancerous, toxin-filled body.
Since then, I’m trying to make this a discipline; to have my inner dialogue be filled with compassion for my body. If I can’t muster it in my own voice, I hear that of my Jordan, my dear friend Karla, and my dear friend Anna (especially when I want a little attitude with the compassion.)
It took a long time and a lot of struggling to get to a place where I can meet my flawed, hurting, sick, failing body with compassion and kindness. To see myself as having strength beyond the confines of health issues I cannot control. I would ask you to try to see yourself— whatever that struggle — with compassion. It doesn’t make the problems go away, but it does help sustain us through the hardship. I hope it can make me look a little more like the God of Love who died for this body of mine.
– Ashleigh Dueck