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The Other Side of the Curtain

From time to time, Huntsman Cancer Institute invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Ruth Centurier-Harris in blue blouse and corsage

You can tell as soon as you meet me that I’m not from around here. I was born in the little African country of Zimbabwe, but I grew up in the beautiful, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, South Africa. I had a childhood filled with love and little first-hand exposure to trauma and death. I went to medical school, worked hard, and graduated in 2000. I married my teenage love, traveled a bit, gave birth to 3 beautiful little girls. Generally, I thought life was going according to plan.

In 2013, my family and I accepted what was meant to be a temporary assignment to the US, moving first to Alabama and then, as a result of various twists and turns, to Salt Lake City, UT, enticed by the mountains and the snow. We had been here less than a year when I started limping. Despite my own medical training, it took many months, significant instability and weakness and endless, grey pain in my hip to get myself diagnosed.

The phone call came at 9:30 AM on February 23, 2017. I had a large, malignant tumor breaking out of my pelvic bone. The call was brief. "It can’t be true. It is true. I’m going to die. My girls…" Our daughters were 6, 8, and 10 years old at the time.

I was 2 months away from my 40th birthday. And here was my mid-life crisis, right on time. But a Harley Davidson wasn’t going to fix it and perhaps this wasn’t going to be mid-life after all. I should have expected the unexpected. Why not me?

The following days and months are rather foggy.

Family flew in from different parts of the globe, people cleaned our house and looked after our kids. Friends and family shaved their heads with me. I wrote my new occupation on medical forms: ‘Staying Alive.’ I would watch my medical team approaching in their white coats and mourn my move to the other side of the curtain.

My Mom ran our household, watched my every mouthful, held my hand, cleaned up endless vomit and reminded me that I wasn’t a statistic. The government granted her Humanitarian Parole that allowed her to extend her stay past the usual 6 months.

My girls drew me endless pictures and brought me endless cups of tea. They were forced to grow up so much and I trust that their independence will stand them in good stead as they grow into young women of character and empathy.

My husband. He did things for me at 40 that he never would have imagined when he said those vows—and we laughed often about how he really, truly, had forgotten to say, "in sickness and in health." And as we lay in bed at night, having somehow gone through all the required motions of the day, I’d say, "We just didn’t see this coming." As if, somehow, we could have. And he’d say, "It’s all going to be ok. We’re going to be ok."

And the great wonder of it all is that we are. Deeply ok.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem Kindness begins:

Before you know what kindness really is
You must lose things
Feel the future dissolve in a moment
Like salt in a weakened broth
And, wow, did we lose things!

I lost my health, but that was only the most obvious. We lost our lives as we knew them and our sense of the future. We lost our home - it’s tricky to return to South Africa without jobs or health insurance - and me labeled by an "incurable" cancer diagnosis. I lost any chance of practicing medicine again.

But it was not all loss—we have also been reminded that life is poignantly beautiful, full of hope and love and kindness. The wisdom we gain when we suffer is that life is truly and deeply both light and dark, joy and pain, loss and gain. We have gained a glimpse of this wisdom. I have gained a chance to reinvent myself.

Although we lost one home, we’ve gained another—full of new and interesting people whom we love. This community has showered us with kindness.

We also received completely phenomenal care at Huntsman Cancer Institute, where, under the compassionate eyes of my special nurses, PAs and oncologists, I have been brought into remission with radiation, two stem cell transplants, and ongoing chemotherapy. What a gift!

This gift has allowed me to develop a passionate determination to live well, according to our values, carefully prioritizing time and good books, practicing being present and savoring the ordinary, extraordinary things: the smell of my daughters’ clean hair (hair, period!), the shape of trees, small family traditions, spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen, my husband making me a morning coffee, again.

We do not achieve this perfectly every day, but we are making progress. We have made our peace with my diagnosis and will continue our quiet resistance. My future is uncertain, but, in reality, this is the truth for all of us.

Would I like, at times, to have my old life back? Absolutely.

Have we gained great things in the Darkness? Absolutely.

Cancer touches all of us.