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The Bench At Mabel's Bluff

My treatment cured more than just my cancer.

Mark J. Speckhart

I lean back on the wooden bench and rest my eyes on the distant South Mountains. The day’s stresses are gone. This bench, with its thick wooden slats, seems perfectly placed, as if it has always been meant for this spot, a place of healing and comfort. It’s connected me to people—to a world—I would never have imagined.

Eight years earlier, in July, I’d just gotten back from an international business trip. I had this sore throat. It hurt to swallow, and there was a burning in my chest. It’ll go away, I thought. When it didn’t, I saw my doctor.

I had Stage III esophageal cancer. Shock wouldn’t even describe what I felt. The doctor was calm and reassuring, but I barely heard a word he said. My mind had already jumped ahead to the finish. At just 42, I was done. Game over. The world closed in over me. Life was reduced to me and that word: cancer.

I came home to my wife, Danielle, and our three children. “We’ll get through this,” Danielle said. “You can’t give up.”

It was too late. I’d never felt more alone. I’d already given up. I paced back and forth behind my house, barely aware of everyone, everything around me: the trees, birds singing. My two Weimaraners, Mabel and Pearl, weren’t sure whether to follow or keep their distance. I’m a doer. Curious by nature. Woodworking and hiking the trail system behind my house were just two of my passions. But it felt as if I were already shutting down.

My oncologist prescribed a protocol of 11 chemo treatments spread over 14 weeks, with radiation five days a week for nearly half that time, and eventual surgery. “There’s a good chance of burns and blisters from the radiation,” he informed me. “And it might make swallowing more painful.” I dreaded everything about it. If it wasn’t for my family, I might not have even bothered.

The first radiation treatment, I lay uncomfortably on a table inside a body cast to ensure I didn’t move. Like a mummy. Already dead. The technician dimmed the lights. “Breathe in— one, two, three. Breathe out—one, two, three,” he intoned through the intercom. For years, I’d practiced meditation. Now I focused on the voice. Letting it lead me. Breathe. There was something unexpectedly soothing in it. For the first time, I relaxed. I let go.

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September 2019