Liz Wurster faces her toughest challenge yet

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2011

By Liz Wurster
For The Salisbury Post
Many of you know me as the girl who just can’t get far enough away from home, as the wanderer, for whom no journey, no adversary, no challenge is too great.
And I have had some wonderful journeys. I have come across some intimidating adversaries and incredible challenges. I braved the stifling summer backroads of Texas while cycling across this big bad country. I faced off with a particularly stubborn nest of wasps while volunteering in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. I overcame a particularly nasty case of scabies after holding an afflicted baby while working at a home for ill children in Peru. I also endured the loss of my father at a young age.
Though none of these experiences were particularly pleasant while they were happening, I came out of them a stronger, deeper person, and I am still smiling.
But it seems that at the ripe old age of 32, I have encountered my most unexpected and bitter rival of all: The big C. The one we all fear.
Just over three weeks ago, I felt a tiny pea-sized lump in my breast. My breath caught.
But then, on second thought, I released it. I was too young for cancer, after all. People my age don’t don’t get breast cancer. And besides, because I was only to be in the States for a brief stint, I didn’t have health insurance. It’s probably just hormonal, I thought; maybe I’ll just keep an eye on it over the next few months.
But when I was passing through Salisbury on my way from Colorado to London, I decided to be on the safe side (unusual for me!) and get it checked out. The last thing I expected, of course, was to hear that that little pea was malignant. I didn’t have time for this. I had grand plans for my life!
I had to fly to London in a few days, I had a wonderful man waiting for me; the world was my oyster. It really wasn’t a good time for cancer.
But cancer didn’t really care.
In a situation like this, when everything is really put into perspective, things begin to shift a little.
The world no longer seems as it once was. Grades, plans, spats, unruly hair, second interviews, bad drivers, pride, even poverty, none of these seem to really matter anymore. Not when the freedom to even experience these things is on the line.
And I am fortunate enough to say with confidence that I have lived a wonderful life up until now. If the purpose of these trials is to make us reconsider the fullness with which we’ve lived, I have no regrets. I would make all of the ridiculous decisions I did the first time; If given the option of a do-over, I would walk — or bike, or swim — the untrodden path again.
I am, however, more thankful for what I once took for granted: this small town that once seemed devoid of the exotic, for which I so fervently searched, now seems like the only place on earth I could imagine facing such devastating news. I realize that it is because I grew up in this strong, loving community, under the guidance of a strong, loving family, that I have had the confidence to fly away into this unpredictable, at times terrifying world, to take whatever twists and turns I inevitably encountered, and to face each new challenge with a smile, a joke, a hug, or a question.
Though it is tempting to get bogged down in the why’s and how-could-this-happen’s of a situation like this, I’ve been trying my best to see the bright side: the friends that dropped everything to be by my side, the women whom I don’t even know who have been through the same thing and are there to lend their supportive ear, the kindness and good humor of the medical professionals with whom I’ve become quite good friends over the past few weeks.
It is the perfect opportunity to bear witness to the selflessness and generosity that often lie buried beneath the quotidian demands of everyday life, qualities that blossom brightly when crisis hits. These are the moments when people finally say what they feel rather than what is proper; it is when you realize how good people really are.
And I’m learning to let go of something that my bold and crazy adventures had led me to believe was fundamental to the path I’d chosen in life: my own invincibility.
So perhaps I needed to be humbled. Perhaps I needed to be reminded that I am, after all, only human.
Over the past few weeks, I have lost things. I have lost my perfect health. I have lost a bit of my optimism: it is difficult to be bright and shiny when the bad news just keeps coming. I have lost — and will lose — pieces of myself, both physically and mentally, that I will have to find a way to overcome. And perhaps most troublingly— for any of us — I have lost some control over my life.
But there are things that I will not lose, as well. I will not lose who I am. I will not shy away from people who care, regardless of how difficult some things are to talk about. Nor will I lose my faith in the people around me, because they are the ones who instilled in me the strength to fight the good fight even in the face of very strong adversaries.
And there are things that I will gain as well. I will gain insight, wisdom, patience. These come to us through circumstances that we don’t plan for, that test our strength, situations that hurt. And perhaps most importantly, this unplanned journey of scary tests, painful pokes, heartfelt support, and irretrievable loss, will reunite me with a place that I had never envisioned going, the most important place of all: home.