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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Examples of courage span generations

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 20 2013 5:22 p.m. MDT

My friend's courageous approach to cancer is a much-needed lesson for this chronic worry-wart.

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I am a worrier.

It comes out in the way I bite my fingernails when I'm nervous. It surfaces in the way I sometimes can't sleep at night because I'm so unsettled. And it shows up in the plentiful strands of white in my hair — I don't even try to hide them anymore, there are so many.

I'm biting my fingernails as I write this, in fact.

My worrying makes me want to get a jump on all of the sad things in life. I have always been much sadder at the thought of something difficult happening than when it actually happens.

I always felt sick the day before the first day of school. When my parents come to visit, I feel the saddest the night before they leave. I even miss being on vacation while I'm still on vacation, knowing that my vacation will end soon.

Those are the easy things.

Sometimes, when my children are sleeping at night, I worry about all of the scary and dangerous things that might happen to them the next day and I creep into their rooms just to touch their cheeks or hold their hands.

I worry about them being happy and safe. I worry about them breathing. I worry about them being healthy, and alive.

I worry about my husband driving to work. I worry about me driving to work.

I worry about everything I don't want to lose or break or change, and it's all for naught, because at the end of the day, my worrying never solves anything.

But still, that's the way I am.

So when my dear friend found out a week or two ago that she has acute myeloid leukemia, I imagined myself in her shoes, with a young baby, a new husband — a life — and I instantly started worrying.

Chemotherapy — what would that be like? Would it hurt? Would she lose her hair? Her baby — what would he eat, now that he can't nurse? The treatment — how does a bone marrow transplant work? Would it hurt? Would she be OK?

Cancer — cancer.

I can't hear the word cancer without thinking of my grandmother, Fleeta Choate, who died before I was born. Her cancer was a different kind, in a different generation, but still, I never knew her because of cancer.

Cancer worries me.

And I wonder if it ever worried Fleeta. Fear isn't something we talk much about, regarding our loved ones, but I want to know. Was my grandmother afraid to go on living after her husband died? What about when her mother died when she was little? Did her cancer scare her? After years of this recurring illness spreading to her different vital organs, did Fleeta ever fear death?

Those are things I will never know, for sure. But I can infer.

One of her mottos was: "kick yourself on through." You may not be gliding, your ball may be flat, and it may not be easy, but if you must, just kick yourself through until you've made the goal.

To me, those sound like the words of a woman who had to do some kicking.

And if I couldn't before conceive of facing cancer without fear, my friend is now showing me how.

"I've never had chemotherapy before, so I don't know what to be scared of," she said to me the day she found out.

She's determined to face the uncertainty, the side effects and the homesickness as they come. In between the peaks of the waves that are rocking her life, she feels peace: this is my life right now, and it's temporary, she says.

Her husband will be OK. Her baby will be OK. And her cancer — well, she's just going to have to kick it.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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