“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 it was the huge thought bubble in everyone’s head. I poked a pen in mine and burst it, putting off the sentencing for another few days while I prepped to prepare a keynote speech.
“I have cancer.”
At first, I had to spit the sentence out … not quite believing the words as the rolled 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 entire 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 … waiting … and worried.
What if? Ohhhhh, let’s play that game. No, let’s not.
I don’t think I got to really grieve. I just had so much I had to do, that I never really got to correctly grieve. I accepted that I this large mass in my breast, but I don’t think I accepted all it’s baggage and crap that it left lying around. I have a right to be angry and thankful, don’t I? For the most part, I harnessed the anger to 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.
And I had a riot. I don’t regret the good times, the feeling of gratitude and strength. 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.
Almost one year later, I have to learn to rephrase it to 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 the tumour to take up residence 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.
Cancer wasn’t like catching the flu or pneumonia. It’s in a bigger ring with more serious illnesses, 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 … use the crutches properly so I’m non-weight bearing on that fracture. 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 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 reason. Thank you for making me feel guilty.
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 white until the pigment cells kicked in again. 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 Dr. T soon. He laughs when he sees me because it usually means I’ve lost my glasses. I have to make an appointment with my dentist to find out what chemotherapy has done to my teeth. On 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 deep 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 and died. However, I am thankful that I made it through the Taxol without significant neuropathy, but I still have bouts of unsteadiness on my feet, as if they quite don’t know where to go next.
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 got poisoned. Osteoporosis, which was a factor in the fractured fibula. The chemo can affect your liver and kidneys. And 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. It’s tough to know what is “normal” for your breast when it has had surgery and radiation. 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. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is common sidecar ride 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 no 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 waiting for the appointments.
I think I am finally ready to look farther ahead! What’s next?! Work, play, love, laugh, dance, rescue.
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 me to say these words with conviction.