By: Carole Ann Borges
When Linda Hill talks about her fight to survive the simultaneous attack of four different cancers on her normally robust body, her arms fly away from her sides. One fist pounds against the palm of her other hand.
“I never heard of a cancer having cancer!” She groans. “So they do this lumpectomy. When they got the pathology back, they said the main tumor was breast cancer and that there was a second one, “a hitch-hiker” attached to it. Then, they said there was a third one! This “stowaway” was also a breast cancer and [it] had been very hard to see. Finally, the fourth one was colon cancer. Four cancers at once! There was nothing I could do. The Lord just carried me through.”
When asked what the low point was in her life and death struggle, she shakes head and looks confused.
“I don’t think I had a low point,” she says. “I guess not. I guess because I know Jesus, I just decided if I have got to stay, I’ll stay. If I have got to go, I’ll go. On one hand I could be with my Lord forever. On the other hand, I could hang out here awhile longer with you folks. Win-win. There is a difference between having faith and embracing an idea. God’s got this. I never said Lord this is too much.”
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, what should she do to find the kind of strength Linda Hill exhibits?
“I’d say sit still and start pulling out your silver linings. Reflect on all the things you have done. Say, yes, I did this! Think about all the times you figured something out when no one else could. Look at all those things like they were signs”
Of course, during her recuperation period there were new challenges. The chemo treatments Linda received left her with gaps in her memory. The vertigo she suffered sometimes made it hard for her to navigate from room to room, and one day she fell.
“I could not will myself not to fall,” she says. “I was a clutter-bug, a third-degree hoarder. One day I realized my house could kill me! My immune system was so blasted. I could not come home. But, girl, you don’t know my precious artist family, my community family, my theater family, my church family, and my school family - too many people to name. They did a pack-and-stack of the whole house. They scooped everything up and put it in the attic!”
One question everyone wants to ask when someone has a catastrophic illness is how they survived the financial cost.
Linda Hill works for the school system as an instructional assistant, so she had basic insurance, but that didn’t cover all her expenses. “There are funding organizations out there…to help families cope with the devastating impact of the cost of treatment, but I didn’t even know how to apply. Once again my different families, affinity groups and friends, helped pull these resources together. Oh, and the hospitals! Fort Sanders and Thompson Cancer Center, they help nurture you, and they have classes you can take.”
Synchronicity always seems to play a large part in times of crisis.
“One day Carpetbag Theatre was performing an excerpt from Between a Ballad and a Blues at the Louie Bluie Festival in Caryville. We were just starting to put our instruments away, and it was very quiet. I saw two women and heard one of them say something about cancer.”
At this point, Hill chokes up. She doesn’t look very formidable now. Wiping her eyes, she tries to smile, but it is lopsided and weak. “If I cry about this,” she says,” I won’t be able to talk.”
Squaring her shoulders, she continues. “Anyway, I heard her say, ’Are you coming to the Wisdom Sisters group?”
“I said, ‘Excuse me, please forgive me if I am being intrusive, but did you say you had cancer? The reason I am asking, not trying to get in your business, but I just got diagnosed with cancer.’”
The Wisdom Sisters group is mostly online, but they do get together occasionally. “At the meeting, we went around the small conference table and everyone said a little about what their situation was. They told about things to read and shared tips about what to do. They passed out a checklist for when you go see the doctor. It never occurred to me to take someone with me to the doctor’s.”
Interrupting our conversation to run into the next room to get a book with a picture of a brain, Ms. Hill returns animated. “Fear!” she shouts. As she pushes the book in front of me, she points her finger to the part of the brain labeled hypothalamus. “Let me get scientific,” she says. “Let me get technical. Joy is great! Right? Being a positive person? We all celebrate that, but if you’re trapped in fear or grief and anger, your brain changes. The hypothalamus changes! Fight or flight kicks in and all your power is drawn to that. All your power goes to the shield. To use a Star Trek term—All power to the shield, Scotty! You might have pushed all your fears back, but you can’t problem solve. Fear and anger are sapping all your energy.”
Ironically positive things emerged from Linda Hill’s valiant struggle and her eventual triumph over the quartet of cancers trying to kill her. “It made me realize—oh, crap! I better get stuff finished. I am not infinite. I have a deadline. So now what do I want to get done before I leave here? This challenged me. It gave me a different perspective, so I embraced the idea that while I am here, and should I get to continue, I will continue to make my contribution to this world.”
Hill says you can learn a lot from the warrior culture. Chogyam Trungpa, a very learned Buddhist monk says, “In Tibet, authentic presence is called wangthang, which literally means, ‘field of power’… The cause or the virtue that brings about authentic presence is emptying out and letting go. You have to be without clinging.”
Linda Hill’s face becomes serious. When she talks about her battle with cancer, she does indeed look like a warrior-woman. “Letting go is NOT giving up,” she says. “There is a difference between releasing and giving up.”
Cancer Support Community of East Tennessee (former Wellness Center)
Office on Aging Family Caregiver Support Program (some restrictions may apply)
Two Maids & a Mop with Cleaning for a Reason (free house cleaning for female cancer patients)
I could not locate information about Wisdom Sisters. If you know anything about this online and/or local community, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will update this article.
© Carole Ann Borges, 2014.