November 30th, 2018

Amy Reich

“The cure for everything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” – Isak Dinesen

It’s a cliche. Navigating obstacles is often, unfortunately, littered with well-intended but ultimately infuriating cliches, and cancer is no different. “Look for the silver lining,” friends say. “You’ll come out of this stronger,” co-workers predict. Rainbows, pots of gold and a zen-like peace; they all ring of truth, but these euphemisms can ultimately be demoralizing to the listener since no person would choose this strength-building exercise or wants to be told that wisdom awaits when he or she is facing surgery the next day. Among the many physically, spiritually and emotionally painful things that cancer has the ability to inflict, the most existential insult, in my opinion as an oncology nurse, is the feeling of otherness, of being apart, of being different. A person becomes a stranger in his own body and an outlier among those with whom he or she once felt so in sync.

The salt water cliche, though… it’s a bit more palatable. Most cliches do stem from some truth, and their downfall was in the overuse that glossed over the fundamental truth and instead lent them an eye-roll and a dismissal.

The tears: maybe they came with the diagnosis, maybe they hit at an unexpected moment and brought catharsis, maybe they came as an expression of overwhelming gratitude for a kind deed delivered by a loving family member or friend. Maybe they came from a well of pain that the person didn’t even know existed within. Maybe they came from the feeling that a person’s own body betrayed him.

The sweat: fluctuations in body temperature related to hormonal therapy, from the physical exertion of tasks that used to be simple, from the exercise that heals you and motivates you to keep moving, from the outpour of sweat that precedes vomiting, from the anxiety that plagues you as you step foot in public for the first time with a bald head or twenty pounds lighter than your normal weight.

The sea: it is constant. It is full of life, and yet the calm surface belies the life that is teeming underneath. It is welcoming, it is refreshing, and it is staggering in its beauty. It has the ability to make humans feel small in a way that diminishes our worries, fears or problems. It is so vast that it encompasses all, making one feel whole or able to belong again.

When I think back on my own life experiences, none of them, thankfully, involving anything the magnitude of a cancer diagnosis, I’ve always taken my thoughts, quandaries, gratitude and musings to the water. Whether it’s a glass of wine and a sunset, a paddle, a swim, a barefoot beach run or walk, watching a great storm on the water, the ocean or bay has been the most healing backdrop. It has been the venue for both sweat and tears many times over. It has been the stage for the moments where it feels as though life almost makes sense; where the spark of a thought becomes understood; where things are seen more clearly; where the ebb of the water rinses the bad thoughts away; where truth crystallizes.

Giving a beach respite to someone journeying through cancer is a physical gift that overrides all the cliches people may hear. It provides an antidote to the complex layer of needs for those people and their families who are navigating treatments. Whether they are capable of running on the beach and swimming in its water or are relegated to gazing at the horizon and counting the seagulls, the beach has a place for everyone.

It is a place to physically walk, feel the sand, to reflect, a place to wonder whether your fears could really just wash away at the shoreline – or at least recede with the tide. The ocean itself is a product of nature and reminds us that there are forces bigger than us and that in this great big world full of heartache and problems and pain, we will still live for something bigger. Perhaps this heartache can be diminished, even just for a moment, by the cosmic and infinite things of life.

I have watched people in my beach hometown get carried by family down to the water’s edge to place fingertips on the sand for the last time and also log daily miles walking on the shoreline as a way to combat the physical conseqences of chemotherapy
I have left work to take a picture of a patient’s favorite beach to her bedside when she was too weak to rise from bed so she could see her special place one more time before an ambulance brought her to her home for hospice care far away from the beach. Whether the beneficiaries of these beach getaways took a family beach vacation every year of their life or have never stepped foot in the sand before, they all stand to gain the same healing benefit of the sand and the saltwater. The beach is a place physically and emotionally far away from the sterile, institutional setting where most people receive their care.

Most people live their lives fearful of hospitals, or at least wary of them. They’re aseptic, unnaturally bright, full of unfamiliar sounds. Then their life becomes centered at a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office. The “new normal” becomes walking those hallways, memorizing those public health posters, navigating the bathroom with an IV pole, learning how to self-inject medications, palpating the bump on their chest where their port sticks out, dressing with a scarf over their heads, sleeping on the rubbery mattress, sleepily raising an arm or turning to the side so a nurse can access their IV line, picking at the lump of bland, inedible food.

Cancer is a disease of the normal process of cell division gone awry, and living the journey that is a cancer diagnosis similarly throws lives into a tailspin. Though people are adaptable, living life in these settings is still not their choosing. Though they seek a cure and truth within all the cliches, there will still be moments of despair and uncertainty. Having the opportunity to escape to the haven of a beach house can provide so many uplifting moments for the people whose lives get thrust into sterility and are constantly grappling with the shockwaves of this new life. It’s an opportunity to forget, to reflect, to feel quiet and still, to hear the different parts of themselves have a chance to speak. Perhaps it is the place where they can begin the work of gathering the pieces of themselves that have cracked to be rebuilt for the remaining journey.

The prism of color that the ocean forms versus bland, standardized rooms in a hospital. Wood decking underneath bare feet as one looks out to the setting sun versus hospital socks with rubber grips on the bottom to avoid falling on slick, cold floors. Grains of sand hiding between toes and behind ears versus the thin, stark sheet covering a plastic hospital mattress and rubbing dry skin. The squawk of gulls versus an IV pump that constantly shrills its alarm.
In the rolling, foaming waves that mesmerize and entrance, maybe therein lies the prescription that every oncologist needs to write: the one for the saltwater “cure.”