Long before I started having fun with cancer scares, I had booked a ticket to Japan. The idea was to be braver, to follow through on oft-discussed dreams, to live my stated priorities. So even though the timing ended up being terrible, I never seriously considered canceling my trip. If anything, the impending biopsy and related catastrophic thinking were motivators. I mean, if I have cancer, what better time to go on a dream of a trip than when I am feeling good and relatively fit? As my surgeon said: "Worst case scenario? It's invasive breast cancer. Nothing is going to change in two weeks. Go! Have an amazing time."
It was an amazing time. Traveling in Japan means getting outside of your comfort zone (I got lost at least one a day, made dumb mistakes on an hourly basis, and rarely recognized the food I was eating), but it's generally such a safe place that you never feel in much danger (a rare combination in travel). The high tech toilets ALONE warrant a visit to Japan! And being there during sakura season felt like winning the lottery (which was also nice because I haven't felt particularly lucky lately). Blossoms are only at peak for a few weeks out of the whole year, and there I was to see it!
But it was also a really hard trip. Although I tried my best to be carefree, I couldn't forget that I was facing a biopsy just a few days after my return home. I found myself more irritable than usual. Rude tourists are always a peeve of mine when I travel, but this time I could barely contain the crankiness. The aggravation was exacerbated by my expectation that seeing shrines and temples in Japan would be some sort of transcendent, serene experience. In reality, this type of sightseeing often means getting elbowed in the stomach, or waiting forever to move into a good viewing spot while the person occupying it takes 30 selfies.
In Kyoto, it really came to a head. The city was packed and most people were not on their best behavior. Everyone seemed so desperate to have their "authentic Japanese experience." In Gion (a famous district in Kyoto), I saw a Geisha (more properly, A Geiko) get mobbed paparazzi-style to the point where it caused a traffic jam! On my last morning in Kyoto, I rushed to Kinkaku-ji, a gold-leaf covered former villa that was converted into a Buddhist temple. It was pouring, but still very crowded, with all of us clutching giant clear umbrellas. I waited a while towards the back of the pack, thinking that eventually, things would start moving. When they didn't, I began weaving my way through the crowd. At first, I was polite: saying excuse me, thank you, smiling warmly. Still, most people weren't really budging, although they didn't seem very focused on the temple either (many were looking at maps, phones, cameras). So I channeled my New York native subway warrior, and pushed through a bit more aggressively. Towards the front, my umbrella caught that of an elderly man, splattering him with rain. He regarded me in horror. I regarded myself in horror. I had become THE ENEMY.
I realized that if something didn't change, I was going to spend the rest of my trip increasingly angry and miserable, and apparently physically aggressive! I tried to hone in on what was really bothering me. What I came to is that I had dreamed of and planned for this trip for so long, and I wanted it to be perfect. But nothing can be perfect, especially not a trip through Japan in high tourist season with a possible cancer diagnosis hanging over your head. If I was going to enjoy the rest of this trip, I would have to let go of my fantasy of what it "should" be and stop trying to force everyone and everything around me into this vision.
I had varying levels of success. Sure, my jaw clenched when a tourist on Miyajima frequently and loudly expressed her frustration that a bride having professional wedding photos taken in front of the famous floating torii was not being more cooperative with her own vacation snapshots. But it helped to remember that she too was just trying to have her dream trip. And that in the grand scheme of things, her actions didn't really impact me, so who cares? "Who cares?" became a bit of a mantra for me, as did "My needs are no more or less important than anyone else's." But I think the most helpful thing was to let go of this idea of perfect. To accept and enjoy experiences for what they are. And to try to have gratitude that I am around to have experiences at all.
These lessons-in-progress have translated well to being at home. Life right now is so far from perfect. There are so many things that I wish were different that I can't even begin to list them. But at the same time, I am genuinely grateful that I have friends who are supporting me, a stable job with health insurance and paid sick time, and access to good medical care. It's also been important to remember that even when negative things are going on in my life, that doesn't mean that everything has to be dark. I can still seek out and have fulfilling and even fun experiences, no matter what else is happening.