Out of control

Lydia Slaby’s new book traces her cancer journey with wit and honesty.

“Wait, It Gets Worse” is no downer. In fact, this cancer memoir by Lydia Slaby is simultaneously fascinating, insightful, and often quite funny. However, her subtitle, “Love, Death, and My Transformation from Control Freak to Human Being” is a dead giveaway of what Slaby is really after. Being a “control freak” is the leitmotif she returns to again and again, and dealing with it is a major part of her journey. She writes, “I spent the first 33 years of my life inhabiting this control, and it gave me two professional degrees, [a high-powered legal job], a husband on the verge of leaving me, and a life-threatening disease.”

Slaby goes on to write when juggling all the issues brought up by her treatment: “I felt a complete lack of agency in the entire process. My health, my fertility [endangered by the chemo], my body as I knew it — all were poised to be upended, and I could not do a single thing about it. My recipe for success had always included taking control of whatever was going on. Having no control over one of the most important decisions of my life left me utterly adrift. I had nothing familiar to grasp; I had no anchor. For the first time in my life, the best option in front of me was simply to submit to the circumstances engulfing me.”

Slaby approaches her diagnosis, multiple surgeries, unforeseen dire complications, a 10- to 12-hour-day corporate law job, and a fragile marriage with frankness and acerbic wit. This produces cathartic laughter, so the reader doesn’t become engulfed in the constant danger she is in. And while Slaby can be sarcastic, she told me she uses it to reveal herself. “You’ll notice that much (if not all) of my humor is pointed at myself, and mostly pointing out all of my flaws that most people keep hidden, but I’ve decided to unveil for the whole wide world to see.”

Slaby has many ties to the Vineyard, not least of which is that “my great-grandparents bought an old sheep farm in West Tisbury back in the 1920s. By the time I came along, my grandmother had turned it into a beautiful garden. In 1997, we converted the land and the gardens into the Polly Hill Arboretum. I couldn’t be prouder of how my grandmother’s work will live on.”

Moreover, she adds, “But mostly, once I see the graying shingle roofs of Vineyard Haven from the ferry and smell the ocean water, I just know I’m home.”

Slaby’s cancer journey begins with the chapter “Diagnosis” in her book, where a seemingly straightforward doctor’s visit about her shortness of breath propels her straight into the emergency room because of what turns out to be a dangerous situation with her heart. After a battery of tests, a parade of doctors, and lots of poking and prodding, the verdict is a non- Hodgkin lymphoma tumor, which is growing around her heart. Upon seeing it on the CT scan, Slaby says, “Clearly, someone had dropped a grapefruit on top of my heart … My tumor was pushing on my heart, which reacted to protect itself by filling the sac where it lives with fluid. There was so much fluid, however, that my heart was under attack from its own protection. Every time it beat, my right ventricle collapsed. With the assault from both the tumor and the fluid, my heart was deeply unhappy.”

When Slaby starts to get better, she instinctively hurls herself into resurrecting her old, familiar life regarding her job, body, and health, saying, “I decided to fight. I determined to get my life back as soon as humanly possible, come hell or high water.” But she found, “Cancer opens a door to transformation and makes it virtually impossible to stand still and refuse to accept that the change isn’t happening.”

Slaby talks about change in the book, saying, “Humans, in general, hate change. We tend to fight against it or white-knuckle our way through it. But change is inevitable. People will get sick. We die … We also get healthy … Even when the change is welcome, we often don’t know how to handle it. So, instead of … controlling our way through life, I offer an alternative: Let ourselves feel the emotions that we’re feeling then, when complete with that immediate flood, recognize that we’ll be OK because we’re resourceful creatures (which, in turn, helps us calm down), accept what’s happening, take the actions necessary to get through it, and then, above all, be kind. This kindness lets us laugh and relax and, dare I say it, enjoy and appreciate the chaos and maelstrom that is human life.”

 

“Wait, It Gets Worse,” by Lydia Slaby, Disruption Books: NY and Austin, is available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven and online.