"There and Back Again" -- A Survivor's Story
-- Sophia Eptamenitis
When I first saw Lord of the Rings, I was unfamiliar with the characters and the idiosyncrasies of Middle-earth. I only went to see it because of the great reviews and Oscar nominations. I couldn't help but smirk at the Hobbits' big and hairy feet, their hair resembling the ‘80's band REO Speedwagon, an elf who's name I thought was "Legless." I was completely clueless
And then I was blown away.
It wasn't until I saw Lord of the Rings a second, third, fourth, time that the story seeped into my brain and I this weird feeling of recognition come over me.
I said to myself, "That was YOU - 20 years ago."
The journey I took back then was just as arduous and like Frodo, I was on a quest to get rid of something. In my case, it was cancer. My "Nazgul" were upon me and I had to out run them.
I was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin's Disease at age 14. Hodgkin's Disease is a form of lymphoma that recently took the life of Richard "Dumbeldore" Harris. My prognosis was good, bearing in mind that I would go through twelve chemotherapy sessions and one full month of radiation. My treatment lasted close to one year (one year when you're 14 is like ten). It's an experience that never is completely forgotten, even as decades pass. Even now, if I contract a cold, flu, or a phantom pain in my side (that turns out to be just gas), I could swear that I catch a glimpse of a Nazgul in the corner of my eye.
(In Rivendell to Elrond regarding the Frodo's wound from the Mordor blade)
GANDALF: That wound will never fully heal. He will carry it for the rest of his life.
Such is the burden of the cancer survivor. While we've come through the trials and tribulations of treatment, we carry the experience of it for the rest of our lives like Frodo will. It haunts us but in many ways it's a blessing because like Frodo, you find a source of strength and courage that you never knew existed within.
This is a bizarre correlation: Many cancer survivors do indeed have scars that resemble the Mordor blades on our chests. Many people treated for cancer have broviacs --catheters that are surgically inserted into a large artery in the chest. It's a direct line for the chemo and prevents the veins in the arms from collapsing due to the strong chemicals that burn as they course their way into the circulatory system. I did not have one, and the drugs left the veins in my arms, like Mordor, a barren wasteland. You can see the marks, much like a drug addict's, to this day. Gandalf was right: the wounds are always there to remind you.
As a cancer patient, you question fate, ask the rhetorical "why me" question, get angry, scared and doubtful.
FRODO: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
GANDALF: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
That dialogue exchange in Moria made the connection for me. Frodo's journey mimics that of the cancer survivor. A journey that I had no choice but to take. I could have chosen not to go through treatment, but that would have meant certain death eventually. Choosing that path is not dealing with reality -- not FACING reality and what needs to be done. That is what Frodo chooses at the Council of Elrond. He chooses to bear the burden. He also chooses to trudge on instead of retreat many times in the story. But as the journey continued in The Two Towers, the ring weighed heavily upon him. Frodo became weaker, just as I did when my treatments continued to pummel by body and bring me to the brink emotionally.
Sure, Frodo might have concluded, "Let's just chuck the ring in the Anduin and head back to the Shire. Screw it." It seems easy enough just to walk away. But we know what would happen if Frodo took the easy way out: certain destruction for the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.
Much the same happens in a cancer battle. If you do nothing -- you die. Not only do you die, but break the hearts and spirits of so many loved ones who watch you give in. They are powerless to do anything. How you fight your battle is up to you.
And it is only YOU. Yes, Frodo had Sam had the Fellowship, much like I had the support of friends, family and community. But my fight was fought ALONE. I alone faced the IV's, the 8-hours of nausea and vomiting, the scarred veins, the fatigue, the hair loss, the depression and the confinement of knowing that there was NO OTHER WAY OUT OF THIS. Like Frodo knowing he must go to Mt. Doom alone at Lothlorien:
FRODO: I cannot do this alone.
GALDRIEL: You are a ring bearer. To bear a ring of power is to be alone. This task was appointed to you and if you do not find a way -- no one will.
Chemotherapy has the power to destroy and heal. The cancer patient enters into a dark arena where emotions, senses and spirits are at their strongest. You can feel the blood coursing through your veins. The smell of alcohol makes you instantly nauseous. The bitter taste of medication stays with you forever. It's like passing through the Dead Marshes: the stench, the endless path and the death that surrounds you, waiting for you to look at it in the face.
In The Two Towers, I could see the change in Frodo's character. No more Mr. Nice Guy. He got testy. And he almost gave the ring up at Gondor. I could see why. Towards the end of my treatments, with my immune system in shambles, my sanity all but lost -- I wanted the Nazgul to just "come and get it." But there were "Sams" in my life that luckily talked some sense into me:
FRODO: I can't do this, Sam.
SAM: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn't. Because they were holding on to something.
FRODO: What are we holding on to, Sam?
SAM: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it's worth fighting for.
As a person who now fundraises in the childhood cancer arena, I witness all the time the devastating impact this disease has on child and even more so, their family. Many people cannot fathom the two words together: children and cancer. To me, children are like Hobbits -- innocent creatures who enjoy the simple things in life. What did they do to deserve such a fate? Like the four Hobbits on the journey, they show uncommon strength and valor despite such a horrible ordeal. Adults cannot comprehend where it comes from.
Many people today survive cancer -- and they, like me, will never be the same. All of us come away from our journey back to health with a certain "knowing," a sense of recognition, sympathy and compassion for fellow humans on THIS Earth who must take that treacherous path at some point of their lives. We recognize the special connection we have with each other. Even with a fictional character like Frodo Baggins of the Shire.
My idea of the term hero has been redefined by this movie. After dealing with my illness and its repercussions, I discovered that no one could save me -- except ME. No one could save Frodo from his perilous path -- except Frodo. Like me, Frodo is small and frail. What strength or courage could come from us -- the "halflings", the weaklings -- or so they all thought. Heroes are not the big and brawny, the rich and powerful -- what have they done for us lately anyway? Heroes walk amongst us every day and they are also someplace else --WITHIN. Ask any cancer survivor. Like Frodo, we have our friends for support, but we also have faith, hope and the WILL TO SURVIVE. Nazgul be damned.
-- Sophia Eptamenitis