Well, that’s that then. My nurse pulled the access needle out of my port, placed a band-aid over the little blood spot at the puncture, and sent me home. My last Herceptin treatment a year after chemo began was finally finished. I pulled my jacket on, gave hugs and kisses all around the chemo room and walked out the door. First things first, I called my surgeon’s office from the car on the way home to schedule my port removal with sedation for the following week. I hate that thing. No matter what I wear I either see it or feel it, strangers stare at it and someone once looked at it in horror and squealed, “Oh my gawwwd is that your tumor?” Ugh. My husband pulled the car into our driveway, I walked in the house, kissed my dog, let her outside to do her thing, and once she was settled, I went to bed. It was only 2pm in the afternoon but I’m wiped out; mentally, physically, and emotionally. I’m spent and I’m cranky. I dozed off into blackness. No dreams, no REM, just a fitful rest. I woke up to a dozen or so texts and missed calls; some congratulating me on finishing treatment, others confirming follow-up appointments, many just checking in and wanting to know when I wanted to go out for lunch/dinner/drinks to celebrate. I looked at my phone and I was paralyzed with fear, with the unknown, with irritation. I don’t want to celebrate. I haven’t done anything special or achieved a hard-won promotion. All I did was complete treatment for a cancer that just won’t leave me alone. People do this every single day; I’m not that special, I just did what I was told to do.
No End in Sight
Looking ahead my calendar was already chock-full of surgeries to refine and complete my reconstruction. In red, there was the date for my upcoming hysterectomy to hopefully derail any new lady cancers that might want to take up residence in my body. There would be more blood work and tests and follow-ups with oncologists, cardiologists and radiologists. All the –ists. But there were also birthdays and anniversaries and reunions listed there too. I was gracious. I forced a smile as I typed out thank-yous, returned calls, and planned dates that seemed free now. I thought, with sadness, if anyone could see inside me, they’d see the fear, the loathing, and the insecurity. Inside I was numb.
After the first cancer, on some cellular level, I think I always knew I wasn’t out of the woods and I also knew, deep down that I would never be out of the woods completely. Cancer stays with you – forever. When you finish cancer treatment there is fatigue. Fatigue like you can’t imagine. It’s like trying to run a marathon through five feet of water. There is lingering brain fog, there is painful neuropathy, there is the emotional rollercoaster, and there is intense gratitude and severe depression residing side by side. There are new pains and old wounds and people expect you to be the same, but you can never be the same when you’ve had to face your own mortality. You can never be the same when you make friends in support groups and online knowing that you will most likely outlive them because they are already stage IV and so far…you aren’t. You will never be the same.
If anyone felt like I feel they’d never leave their bed.
I think this often. I don’t say it for pity. I say it because if you haven’t walked a mile in my shoes you can’t possible comprehend what it takes just to get going. In the morning everything hurts, throbs, aches. I’m way too stubborn and independent to go out on disability, and in my head, if I did that, then the cancer has won. So I take my time getting up and moving around. The restlessness and irritability that comes from the chronic insomnia cancer leaves in its wake is infuriating and I take sleeping pills more often then I’ll admit.
The ghost of a cancer diagnosis will haunt your day-to-day. You want to join a gym? Great, here’s the paperwork. Item number 8? Have you ever been diagnosed with or treated for cancer? The tattoo parlor? It’s usually item number 3. A new doctor? Item number 5 on the form. No matter how good you feel or how far past your diagnosis you are those papers bring you right back to the smells of chemotherapy and the sounds of the hospital. You grit your teeth, find your favorite coping tool and soldier on because that’s all you can do. Fight through the emotions and get to a better place.
Survivorship is hard, damn hard.
It’s exhausting and overwhelming. It can leave you bitter, angry, grateful and impatient, all together and at once, and that is okay. You do you – because there is no right way to do cancer. Everyone handles it differently. You can feel so many conflicting emotions at the same time. It’s all part of the process. Every day brings with it a chance for a new beginning or the remembrance of an old fight. Some days you dig in your heels and resolve to be better, do better, and other days you just want to flip the world off and stay hunkered down under the covers.
I’m grateful to be here, to continue engaging and supporting my sistah’s in this disease. I’m grateful to see my kids grow into adulthood. I’m grateful for coffee, and cinnamon rolls, bourbon and the promise of summer. Grace brings patience, and I’m continuing to learn and be better in both of those areas. Grace was never my strong suit, but I’ll never stop trying. Grit never leaves. It punctuates every sentence, laces every action and motivates my ferocity. Grit, I know. Grit, I’m comfortable with. Grit gets me through the worst days because grit knows I’ll never give up or give in.
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