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t was June of 2016 and they’d soon leave Hyde School for good, and so they gathered in the old mansion on a rainy night with their classmates and teachers for a tradition known as “the cards are dealt.”

One by one their time came and they stood and spoke of their parents’ divorce or a physical setback or a parent’s death, and then explained how they’d played those cards. The ritual calls for them to recognize resilience, to see shelters they’ve already built against adulthood’s storms.

At the edge of the group sat a 43-year-old teacher who’d been dealt the worst card. Days before, doctors told Lisa Geller they could no longer treat her endometrial cancer, which had spread with stunning pace. Her supervisor asked if she’d like to address the kids. She spoke last.

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“I remember saying — it was really difficult for me — but I felt like my light was not ready to go out. And I don’t think that was bullshit. I don’t think that was me sitting in front of 17- and 18-year-olds trying to make them feel better.”

Geller only fell apart once over the next couple of days: during a student performance of the hit song “Good to Be Alive.” But weeks later she was in her parents’ bed with sunlight through the window and the sound of children in the ballfields out back, and she had nothing left.

Geller curled one hand around her mother’s fingers. She was in blinding pain, fogged by painkillers, and tucked into a ball with her rescue dog, Sadie, at her hip.

“I want to be buried where Nana is,” she told them. And she told them of her regrets: of never experiencing true love, or career pinnacles or financial security — milestones her peers had achieved in the years she was trying to stay alive.

And now it is a year later, and Geller sits at the big window of a Boston cafe with her coffee and pastry, with people stopping in from yoga and shopping, oblivious to the miracle in their midst. She is brightly dressed with blond-tinted hair and colorful glasses. She could pass for 30.

About that miracle (even her doctors called it that): “It sounds so cliché, but it was like pouring water on a dead plant and it comes back to life.”

Not long after the day in her parents’ bed, Geller’s doctor prescribed a long-shot immunotherapy drug that wasn’t yet approved for her particular cancer, but that has shown some promise in other tumor types. Within two weeks her pain had subsided and her tumors had started melting away, and by the autumn her cancer was gone.

And now she is wondering what comes next.

“I feel stalled, I guess you’d say. We’re all supposed to be married and in a committed relationship and buy a house and achieve professional success, and that all sort of happens during the seven-year span I’ve been in treatment.

“I’m not in crisis anymore, but now I’m faced with dealing with my real issues, missing those milestones.”

Considerable obstacles remain. She revisits the trauma of her near-death experience, and confronts the physical damage and scars that remain. She lives in constant fear, fueled by immunotherapy’s short history, that her cancer will return.

Because of these new drugs, cancer and palliative care specialists are seeing more people who were dying and then suddenly were not. Some of them never feel the weight of that process, and they lift an eyebrow at those who express anything but gratitude for a second chance.

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But for those like Geller, stranded in the liminal state between dying and living, the story is more complicated than perhaps we like our miracles to be.

She’s trying to craft a social life around her adopted hometown of Bath, Maine, despite her need to sleep sometimes 15 hours a night because of immunotherapy side effects, and she’s dialing down her goals around 50-hour workweeks.

Even with a counselor to help her weave her anger and gratitude into something more manageable, it is a steep challenge.

“There’s part of me that feels like I have to say something that I’m struggling with, for people to understand that my normal is a lot different than their normal. And I really struggle with that — with wanting to say, ‘I just want to tell you I’m fucking angry and I’m sad because of the lost time.’”

But she doesn’t.

Instead she meets her 75 students where they are and then sleeps through the night, and she writes and knits and goes for coffee and drops subtle clues to those around her that she is not who she appears to be. She is someone in waiting: waiting for the next card to be dealt, hoping it is one that might deliver her into the complication of a normal life.

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  • Thank you for this moving piece. Decades ago, I had friends with HIV who were preparing to die. And then many didn’t. Friends who were referred to hospice. And then discharged. I can’t say I know what that’s like, but note that a huge number of people experienced this a while back.

  • Sue Fraser Frankewicz, you have no concept of what I experienced. How I choose to describe it is my choice. The adjective would probably have been better, But I can’t edit my original post.

    schiz·o·phren·ic
    ˌskitsəˈfrenik/Submit
    adjective
    adjective: schizophrenic
    1.
    having, relating to, or characteristic of schizophrenia.
    “schizophrenic patients”
    (in general use) characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements.
    “walking around the museum was a strangely schizophrenic experience”

  • I will be the first to admit that I haven’t confronted this kind of health challenge, but I did find myself, after a whirlwind romance, in a 6 1/2 year nightmare marriage to a man who was a bipolar, alcoholic heroin addict. He was physically, psychologically, and emotionally abusive.

    A fatal head-on collision on the autobahn outside Munich. on his way to see his much younger pregnant girlfriend saved me. Then, I struggled with the schizophrenia of relief and grief washing over me in waves for months and all the guilt that goes with that. I lost those 6 1/2 years and more tragically, so did my son.

    But, we survived and have gone on to appreciate every day. We regret those lost childhood years, but we are so grateful for all the great years since where we’ve gone on to have full lives.

    So, I don’t understand what to me is a very selfish ‘glass half-empty’ attitude. You could be dead and then, you’d really never be able to have a relationship, a house, a 401K. But, you’re not! You’ve been given the greatest gift of all, life. It is ungrateful not to make the most of it. Get over it! Move on with your LIFE!

    • I really appreciate your post, your honesty and your determination to let the rest of your life be one of maximum joy. We, of course, cannot know what another is struggling with so can’t tell them how to manage it no matter how similar it looks to our own experience.
      Quick caution: please don’t use the name of the severe psychosis schizophrenia as a synonym to mixed emotions. Not fair to those who will never really be OK again. I’m glad you are.

    • I think getting on in life is more easily said than done. Getting over trauma is not like getting over the flu. Anyway, why should we get over things when it is those things that make us who we are.? Plus, as shocking as this may seem, I don’t think any of us truly appreciates the gifts and opportunities we are given. We remain the spoiled, narrow-minded brats of our childhood, and is that so bad?

  • Hey! Grad school kept me from meeting all those life milestones. I’m 47, healthy and still missed them! You go woman! Life is strange as well as beautiful!!

  • Your article is not only succinct but extremely relevant in an age when an increasing number of patients are having to live with the unforeseen consequences of miracles. I work in the AIDS field and I see how the miracle of new treatments has thrown many into limbo states in which new kinds of miracles are needed.

  • Coming back from cancer like this is unusual, but escaping a deep hole of illness and dealing with the consequences is not. At age 38, severe Bipolar Type 2 clobbered me. Cycles of 2 weeks productive and 6 weeks paralyzed cost me my job, my savings, and my identity. I lived for 7 years in the shadow world between life and death, empty and static. Eventually the right drugs brought me back, but the scars are considerable. My outgoing manner, my network of friends and colleagues, my retirement savings, my attraction to risk and new ventures, my hopes of having a partner — all decimated. The sorrow of lost years, the fear of recurrence, and the leftover debility mean that I, too, “walk gingerly among the living.” My story is anything but uncommon.

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