We filed out of our two vans for our first scenic break. Unending giant red rocks stacked on top of one another: I thought I was on Mars. We had just arrived for our First Descents rock-climbing trip in Moab, Utah.
I glanced over the cancer-surviving participants in the other van. My eyes paused on a girl with clean olive skin, short brown hair, sweet aviators, and non-traditional attire which I labeled “hippie clothes” because I lack female fashion apparel knowledge and knew no other way to categorize it. She was also leaner than me. Lings, as her nickname was later revealed, was smiling and gesturing towards the stunning, cloudless sky, which I now guess my mind fabricated in order to fit her “hippie” label.
Later, we all swapped stories. Lings was from Arkansas in a town of 300 people. Her home’s drinking water derived directly from a nearby stream. During the spring Lings would see tadpoles in her glass. She was intellectual, humorous, tech-savvy, and spoke with a dialect that revealed during words with “ay” sounds:
“Those tadpoles were toi-ayyysty.”
“No woi-ayyy those tadpoles goi-ayyyve me cancer.”
I believe that latter statement, though I can barely believe her cancer account. In March 2011, at just twenty-six years old, Lings was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. But there in Utah with her port removed and hippie glow, Lings was a cancer-free cancer survivor like the rest of us. My assumption stemmed from my general unaffiliation with the cancer community, and my Superman Complex. You get cancer; are provided a cancer completion milestone date; take the treatment; reach the milestone; the end.
Though Lings and I rode in separate vans from the airport, we traveled together for the remainder of our trip. In “Doogie’s Van,” Doogie and I sat in front—often increasing the music volume—as a slew of ladies sat in back discussing “up and out of the way” cervices, large ovaries, and which 90’s song played during Sunny’s first period (Lisa Loeb’s “Stay”). Lings had uploaded “Stay” to her phone days before. I had never been so thankful for another dude to stay with me during my forced proximity with several girls.
Lings quickly earned the turkey hat—a nightly reward for the raddest person. This was no surprise. She took the group’s most socially anxious and risk-averse survivor under her wing. When Nae Nae finally gathered the courage to repel down the rock, Lings hugged her, teary-eyed. Lings later presented her turkey hat to me.
I used to shove the cancer community away. I hardly communicated with other patients and survivors, dictated by my Superman Complex, and didn’t appreciate their friendship. Lings and the others offered a new opportunity for me.
Something else was new: my awareness that some of the other trip participants were not cancer-free. Two were in the middle of their multi-year leukemia treatment. Another knew he had new growths in his lung. And Lings had found out one week prior to our trip that she had many tumors on her ovaries.
In Doogie’s Van on the next-to-last day of our trip, Lings listened to a voicemail reporting that her uterine tissue biopsy came back benign. Our van erupted with joy. This time even Doogie and I embraced our van’s discussion.
Since returning home, now in D.C., Lings has had her ovaries and appendix removed, port re-inserted, and chemo re-started. At least her uterus is soi-ayyyfe. Her official survival statistic is 6-8%, and one doctor told her, “You know you’ll be on some form of treatment for the rest of your life, right? Because there is no cure.”
Lings laughed while sharing this with me. She laughed harder when describing her upcoming procedure in three months. Known as “hot chemo,” Lings will have her abdomen filled with physically warm chemotherapy and then shook about so the fluid reaches her whole cavity. I like Lings’ term better: shoi-ayyyke and boi-ayyyke.
As strongly as I resisted earlier in life, I am now drawn to the cancer community. Being around Lings and others does not burden or upset me; it enlivens me. I wish to help her however I can, and for her to know that I would reap far greater rewards than she would.
Just like when I was provided a 30% chance of survival, I advised Lings to consider that her 6-8% doesn’t apply to her. I believe that. Also, tumors are terrified of tadpoles.
If you want updates on Lings’ life and cancer journey, then read her blog and follow her on Twitter.