“I might have cancer.”
It was nine months ago on March 6th when my GP called me to say I had an appointment with a surgeon ASAP. They didn’t say the “C” word, but that was the huge thought bubble in everyone’s head. I poked mine with a pen and burst it, putting off the sentencing for another few days while I prepped and delivered a keynote speech.
“I have cancer.”
At first, I had to spit the sentence out … not quite believing the words as they sliced off my tongue. Fear. Denial. Bargaining. Anger. Acceptance.
As soon as I had my diagnosis, I had a plan. As soon as I had a plan, I had some peace. Life was a whirlwind of medical activities, but we and my health care team – no my entire A-team – were doing something! Marching against my cancer. My dance card was a massive jumble of tests, scans, biopsies, nuclear dye insertion, surgery, more tests and scans, wellness, bloodwork, chemo, genetics, radiation.
But who knew you had to roll back into Grief – Stage 1 and relive the fear? Or Grief – Stage 4 – the anger and depression that can hit almost immediately after treatment or take years to work its way to the surface. I’m well … I’m waiting … and I’m worried.
What if? Ohhhhh, let’s play that game. No, let’s not.
I don’t think I really got to grieve. I had so much to do, that I never fully processed my grief for me. I accepted that I had this large mass in my breast, but I don’t think I accepted all its baggage and the crap that it left lying around. It’s not that I avoided it, I just didn’t realize what a giant cliff I would have to step off. I have a right to be angry and thankful, don’t I? For the most part, I harnessed the anger by writing because it’s what I do best.
I had to pick and choose my battles. Drop Matt off to work and pick him up or go to bed early? Take the dogs to the dog park or nap? Clean the kitchen or do laundry? Write or bank? Read or make dinner? I still haven’t gotten my car in to the collision centre to deal with getting rear-ended on the way home from the hospital. And I should get those snow tires out. Listen to people tell me to be a warrior or tune them out.
Amazingly, I don’t regret the good times, the feeling of gratitude, strength and sense of self. It is quite something to grip the hands of a stranger while she is going through what you did … and smile. That big, wide smile off connection, comprehension and camraderie, and tell her it wasn’t so bad.
Almost one year later, I have to learn to rephrase cancer in the past.
“I had cancer.”
Except, the lines are not quite so easily defined. “Are you cancer free?” people ask. I shrug. I don’t know. I might have been cancer free as soon as they removed the tumour and breast tissue for clean margins. I couldn’t feel the cells growing in the first place, so I have no idea if they busted out of my tumour to relocate in far-flung places like my bones or my brain. Or closer. My lungs. My liver.
Only time will tell. Chemo and radiation aren’t a sure thing. They either don’t kill all the cancer cells, or I have new replication errors.
I didn’t get to fling open beautiful glass doors and walk from the Chemo Lounge to the Cancer Free Lounge, smiling at the sunshine, butterflies and breathe in fresh air as I stepped from one room to the other. It’s not a fucking fabric softener commercial (those may cause cancer …)
Cancer is right up at the top of the serious illness list but I didn’t always look sick. I even managed to date through parts of chemo and radiation.
When I first broke my leg, the orthopedic surgeon wanted to do surgery and screw in a plate. “I can’t,” I said, “I’m scheduled to start a month of radiation.” He told me not to walk on it, to use the crutches properly so I didn’t bear any weight on the fracture. At first, I couldn’t even make it out of the car and into the hospital. I asked for help and received a temporary Handicapped license for a few months. Between chemo, radiation, burns along the side of my breast and fatigue, the crutches were a worse experience than the cancer! The handicapped sticker was great until someone mouthed off that a broken leg was not a good enough reason. Thank you for making me feel guilty. I can’t be bothered explaining my illness.
I’m left with mostly invisible scars from the cancer and the treatment, so no one knows I am still tired, forgetful, and some things still taste funny. My hair is still growing in, but I shaved it off again. It came in baby fine and pure white until the pigment cells kicked in to produce brown hair. Now it’s 50/50 grey and brunette. My eyelashes are growing thick and long, but my eyebrows have thinned. My eyesight is a little worse and I will need to visit my eye doctor Dr. T soon. He laughs when he sees me because it usually means I’ve lost my glasses, again. I have to make an appointment with my dentist to find out what damage chemotherapy and dryness has done to my teeth. More to add to the to do list.
I still have two scars from the lumpectomy and the sentinel node biopsy. My breast recovered fairly quickly from radiation but looks like a fading summer tan. I have three small tattoos and a small pimple-like scar on my arm from the PICC line. My fingernails survived but my toenails look like The Walking Dead. Whatever holds your nails to your skin bled, died and crawled under … at least that is what it looks like. My nails are half healthy, half zombied.
However, I am thankful that I made it through the Taxol without significant neuropathy. I still have bouts of unsteadiness on my feet, as if they quite don’t know where to go next. I stumble over the dogs often, which is dangerous in bare feet.
My red and white blood cells were non-existent.
Most of the other scars are invisible. Heart damage. Chemo brain. I struggle mostly with short term memory loss and names – people, places and things – so my prefrontal cortex was damaged with my cure. I have osteoporosis, which was a factor in the fractured fibula. The chemo can affect your liver and kidneys. And increase other rates of cancer. Fatigue. While I didn’t require a mastectomy or hysterectomy, I think I have been pushed into menopause, so I have to cope with more added symptoms.
“Will I get cancer again?”
They give cancer patients a booklet about Life After Cancer and send us on our way.
I am vigilant about every new ache and pain … waiting to see if it will disappear after several days. It’s tough to know what is “normal” for your breast once it has been mangled. Is it scar tissue or a new lump? The second degree radation burns bubbled and peeled. At one point, I thought “Uh oh!” as my breast looked and felt like an orange peel … hard and dimpled, but it softened as it healed.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common sidekick after cancer. You wait for the next bomb, becoming anxious and fearful with scanxiety. I used to run my stress off, but I can’t do that yet with the instability of a broken leg. I can’t wait to return to clean, outdoor living with friends and dogs. I have become Mother Bear protective of my health and welfare, and have zero tolerance to being physically bumped around.
Next week is a busy week with my one-month post radiation and three-month post chemo checkups sandwiching my leg fracture followup. I will be monitored for 5 years, but don’t yet know what that means physically or emotionally. At the moment, I am pretty numb just waiting for the appointments. I breathe in and out of moments of fear.
But I am tough and resilient. I think I am finally ready to look farther ahead! What’s next?! Work, play, love, laugh, dance, rescue and 2018.
Part Two for this blog entry will be about finding my new normal since I have to adapt and roll with the changes.
“I’m cancer free.”
I don’t know how long it will take for me to say these words with conviction.
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