It’s been nearly two years since my diagnosis—too long for it to be “new” news, but not long enough for it to be a distant memory. Living in post-Katrina New Orleans, I’ve discovered an interesting similarity between how I’m feeling and the Gulf Coast. We’re both going through the motions of our day-to-day lives, trying to get back to normal (whatever that is), while waiting for the next big hurricane to hit.
After all, isn’t that what cancer is—a Category 5 direct hit to the body and soul? It doesn’t really matter what kind of cancer it is. The shock is just as distressing and the after-effects nearly as fearsome and worrisome as the storm itself. Every day brings a new challenge and another hurdle to overcome. Even though my cancer was considered “curable,” I live with the knowledge that it can recur, sort of like hurricane season.
My physical scars are lighter now and for the most part, forgotten. But every so often the ones on the inside tear open. Most of the time I feel thankful that I made it through the whole ordeal largely intact and, according to the doctors, successfully. And I would seem very ungrateful and wholly without grace if I failed to acknowledge how blessed I am to have family and friends who have been and still are wonderfully supportive and loving.
That said, when those emotional scars rip open, I have such anger—a deep, irrational anger that borders on despair. There are times when anger permeates everything, every thought, every facet of my mind. I am angry that I am no longer immortal. I am angry that I feel old. I’m angry that, if I wanted to, I could never have more children. I’m angry that I am “damaged goods.” I’m angry that I’ve become a statistic.
Becoming a statistic
I never considered myself a statistic, until now. But I only get so far thinking that way before I remember that I’ve had it relatively easy and that there are so many others who have had it worse. Someone I met and befriended while going through radiation (our treatments were back to back for weeks), lost her battle with cancer shortly after our radiation treatments ended. I visited Betty in her home and spoke with her daily until a few days before she died, holding her hand while she made peace with the fact that her life was coming to an end. She never once questioned her destiny. That kind of reality puts things in perspective for me. I need only to think of her, and my anger is replaced by my desire to focus on the positive aspects of this journey.
I’ve come to learn that those strangers who prep you for surgery, take your blood, check your weight, administer medications, radiate your body, and do the many other necessary things, are really angels. You come to rely on these angels, whose smiles and words of encouragement and comfort help make those days a little easier to take.
I’ve realized that there is really no day so bad that something funny can’t be found. And on the day of my second surgery, to determine whether my cancer had metastasized, I found an opportunity to be funny. With help from my mother, I drew a big smiley face instead of an “x” on the side of my chest to be operated on, and included a message bubble that said “Hi, Bertha” (Bertha was my anesthesiologist). Apparently, it was quite a hit when they opened my gown after I was put under.
This experience has given me the chance to find out just how loved I am by friends and family who never let me down, never let me feel alone and who constantly found ways to make my treatment easier. From daily phone calls, to making dinners for my family when I couldn’t, to taking me shopping for wigs, to signing up to walk on my Relay for Life® team, there was never a moment I didn’t feel supported.
A bad dream
It all seems like some kind of really bad dream—very surreal. When my surgeon called to tell me the tumor she had removed two days before was malignant, my whole world tilted. Standing alone in my kitchen on a hot August morning, I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach and I was suddenly unable to breathe or stand. Throughout my treatment, I felt like I was in a movie—not quite there, removed from it all. With each hospital admission, each test and each lab study, it felt more and more like a dress rehearsal. One of the first tests required that I lie on a table after being injected with radioactive dye. The two technicians and I spent the entire hour talking about LSU Tiger football and who was going to play in the World Series, while I pretended that it was very routine and that my presence in the room was merely incidental. I giggled my way through a breast MRI, which required me to lie face down on a table with my breasts hanging through two holes in a foam form. It was easier to see the ridiculousness of the image than to acknowledge how serious the outcome might be.
As my treatment progressed, I began to lose weight, lose my hair and lose my sense of taste and smell. While my body was becoming alien and foreign to me, I tried to act as if it was no big deal. Just as every New Orleanean has his or her own Katrina story, so does every person who has had or now lives with cancer. Some stories, like mine, are of a relatively minor experience, while others are of significant loss and struggle.
My personal battle was waged and won, at least for now, while I was only 41 years old. I found a lump through self-examination that did not show up on a mammogram; it was seen only through an ultrasound. After a lifetime of choosing the healthy path—eating right, exercising faithfully, not smoking or doing anything beyond moderation—my diagnosis came as a huge surprise, as if making the “right” choices keeps anything bad from happening to us. We try so hard to believe that we can live long, healthy lives as long as we go to the gym three times a week, don’t smoke, eat enough fruits and vegetables, drink eight glasses of water a day and get eight hours of sleep every night. It kind of takes the wind out of our proverbial sails when we get slapped in the face with the randomness of an illness like cancer. It is more fitting then to ask “Why not me?” instead of “Why me?” When it comes right down to it, isn’t it more about how we handle these challenges than about whether we think we deserved them?
I prefer to believe that what I went through had meaning. I want to believe that other women will be encouraged to perform breast self-exams and become their own medical advocates, seeking answers from their doctors and not settling until they get them. I want to believe that my son will have a greater sense of compassion having seen firsthand the generosity of spirit given to us during a difficult time. And I’d like to believe that I had a hand in showing someone else that it is possible to go through treatments and survive this disease, and still find something good about it. As with my friend Betty, not everyone gets a second chance. I am blessed to have that second chance and, if Betty were here, she’d tell me to make the most of it. If there is one person who finds comfort or inspiration in my journey, then it will have been worth it. As for those emotional scars, they say time heals all things and thankfully, for now, it looks like I have time.