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What’s All This, Then?

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

Orson Welles
director, actor and producer


Honestly, this blog is supposed to be funny, but sometimes it’s hard to get there.

I am a cancer survivor. You cannot imagine how good it feels to write that. This blog was established to help me document my journey, process my experiences and, ultimately, inch away from thinking of myself as a cancer patient and towards being a mindful, peaceful and accepting (that’s a tough one!) creature on this Earth. Be warned, some of my posts are self-indulgent and unnecessarily wordy; I have much respect for anyone willing to slog through them.

Right now, this blog is anonymous: I need to stumble through my feelings, complain when I feel like it and be blunt when necessary — and I need a safe space to do it without fear of judgmental glances. While my goal is to keep this light-hearted, I realize that I have the pleasure of being a survivor and chuckling about my cancer experience; there are many who are not granted that opportunity. Writing this blog is a privilege.

Cancer sucks. It’s an indiscriminate spectre that has haunted the lives of practically everyone at some point, whether relatives, friends or ourselves. For me, cancer cannot pass into faded memory quickly enough, but at the same time, I am infernally curious about the disease and how it has changed me.

So here are my facts:

In early 2017, I was diagnosed with triple-positive (estrogen+, progesterone+ and HER2+) breast cancer. The lump was 1.6cm in diameter, removed at the end of March, along with three sentinel lymph nodes that were revealed to be unaffected. Chemotherapy (Taxotere & carboplatin) started a month later and lasted the entire summer, 6 hefty courses, one every three weeks; adjuvant therapy (Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody) also started at this time, but went for 17 courses, ending in April 2018. Daily radiation treatment lasted six weeks through autumn of 2017. A 3-D mammogram in February 2018 showed nothing, in a good way. That marked my first year without the tumor.

I wish I’d been able to write in 2017, but my head wasn’t there. I was not processing, I was existing and enduring. After my final Herceptin infusion, my port was removed and I turned around to see what had happened. It took several months of writing before I tossed out my first post in September 2018, privately at first, and then, “Hello, world!”

It’s going to be a bumpy, unpolished ride. Bear with me.

Addendum to Anxiety

I am just coming off a bout of particularly intense anxiety, so this is a good time to write an addendum to my last post. This episode of anxiety was striking in its intensity, hit me much harder than I expected and took a lot more out of me. The trigger was something that happened to someone I love, so I had no control over it but felt all the emotional pain.

It’s now been almost a week. Intellectually I’m over it but its physical effects linger and threaten to pull me back in. This is a change from the past because I used to be able to shake these feelings more easily. Now anxiety casts a long shadow that remains after the worst has passed. I get flashes of the stressful event and I re-experience that despair.

As it did with my cancer diagnosis, my weight plummeted over the past week. The reason: my reaction to anxiety is in the gut and intestines. A cold, tight, miserable feeling — emotional pain made physical. As days go by and things seem to fall back into place, meditation grounds me and staying mindful keeps me focused on the “now” and not ruminating on what has happened. But while I can calm myself, the physical effects of the nausea hold on. 

That nausea, then, serves as a reminder of the event and re-triggers the anxiety. In times of distress I fear eating because the nausea is even worse with food in my stomach. But not eating weakens me and increases the sense of agony. This transitions into a depression of sorts. Quite simply, at this point I can’t win.

What causes even more anxiety is the link between stress and inflammation, and thereby inflammation and cancer. While I’ve been assured that it’s not the case, there’s a part of me that still implicates stress in the proliferation of my cancer. 

As my weight drops I am reminded of that same fear I felt after my diagnosis, that the drop in weight would worsen my outcome because I still had to go through chemo and its effects. So all that fear is concentrated and deep in meaning. One event triggers multiple memories.

This seems like an impossible situation. Anxiety brings worries of cancer, which cause more anxiety. I’m afraid of being afraid. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

The cycle runs its course as time passes. The intensity fades. Slowly I regain my emotional footing, but I’m still attached to the expectations I had before the event that triggered this anxiety. Those expectations will eventually transition into a new reality, but until I am truly able to practice non-attachment, I am destined to repeat this.

Invisible Effects: Anxiety

This is tough to write.

One of the reasons this blog is currently anonymous is that there are topics I want to cover without the fear of being judged. As many strides as have been made in dealing with mental health issues, there still remains a stigma associated with things going on in your headspace.

If there’s one thing that cancer did, for better or for worse, is force me to face the fact that I have a problem with anxiety. I’ve often wondered how different my cancer experience would have been, had I been able to go through all of this without the uncontrollable fear. I expect that I would have been less angry, less nauseated, less desperate. I’m sure that other people experience anxiety with their diagnosis too; mine devoured me.

Cool, calm, collected…and so not me.

This deserves a description: if asked to describe myself as a dog breed, I would like to say that I’m a Great Dane or a Mastiff (hopefully less drooly), watching the world coolly, not getting too excited about anything. But that’s not who I am. I’m a Chihuahua — but not a nasty, bitey, snarly guy with a Napoleon complex. I’m one of those pathetic little dogs that just sits there and trembles with a paw raised. I get anxious, and how. But in the past, the bouts of anxiety always passed rather quickly, perhaps in a matter of hours or, at worst, a day or two. My mind would work through it, and that would ease the tension. That’s why I’ve always been able to handle it.

But going through cancer blew that to pieces. When I experience anxiety now, it hits me like a freight train. The effects are immediate: a cold punch to my gut followed by nausea and weakness. When I focus on being mindful and present, I can slow my breathing and heartrate but I cannot get rid of the nausea, so I can’t shed the overall feeling.

This sensation is horrible. Meditation works wonders, but I cannot yet make enough space for my anxiety to be able to step back and observe it. It’s in my face, and that’s terrifying, but not necessarily apparent to those around me. It’s a dirty little secret that has affected my quality of life.

That can be harder to deal with than cancer. And I can’t believe that I let myself write that. But apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. Dr. Stephen Ilardi, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas with a private practice in Clinical Psychology, teaches a Calm Master Class called “Rethinking Depression” (Calm.com) in which he describes the experience of a former cancer patient who battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While undergoing particularly difficult cancer treatment, the patient was visibly ill and suffering but received an enormous amount of support from those around him, and that helped him through the disease.

Several years after he recovered from his cancer, the young man experienced a bout of serious clinical depression, but he didn’t “look sick” the way he had from the lymphoma. As a result few people around him understood the level of psychological pain he endured, and he received little support.

After his depression finally lifted, the patient declared that if he had to chose between once again going through the cancer or experiencing depression, he would take the cancer even though its treatment was pure physical torment. 

That speaks volumes regarding not only the agony of psychological distress but also how critically important it is to take it seriously. Mental health issues deserve more attention, and even though we’ve come a long way in understanding their impact, we need to do better. In the context of cancer, I feel it’s imperative to address the psychological repercussions of the disease, in addition to the life-threatening physical ones.

Which is why I’m writing. I can’t help but think how much worse this would be if I wasn’t actively engaged in coping techniques.

Invisible Effects: Helplessness

Suffice it to say, simply having cancer can leave you feeling helpless. Ignorance of the cause, uncertainty about the future, fear of treatment effects — that lack of control is frightening. But that’s not the helplessness that I’m writing about here.

In my last post on chemo brain, I alluded to the disorientation that comes from distractedness, brought on by lasting effects of chemotherapy on brain function. Here, I want to drill down and describe the feelings of helplessness that arise. 

In WHY Did I Just Do That?, I wrote about a humorous dream in which I couldn’t understand the reasons for my weird behaviors. But the more sobering side of this is that I often feel that same way during my waking hours. There are things that I’ve done — treating a red light like a stop sign, as mentioned in my previous post — that make absolutely no sense to me and make me feel like I’m not in control of my own behaviors.

To make matters worse, I am not aware that I’m doing anything wrong (or dangerous or illegal!) at the time. When I realize what I’ve done, I’m horrified. Want to feel helpless? Not being able to trust yourself is a pretty good way.

I’ve been told that the main issue is loss of focus. Mindfulness helps immensely in these types of situations, but as anyone who has practiced mindfulness can tell you, you can’t be mindful 100% of the time. In my case, I’m fearful that this distractedness can put others or myself at risk.

This.

Want a few more examples? Some are rather benign, like almost flooding the bathroom because I left the water running in the sink. Or writing an important email and leaving it unsent. Most of us have done something like that at one time or another, likely due to juggling too many tasks at once.

But the things that leave me feeling desperate are the ones that are not easily remedied. Having to learn things over and over again because I’m not retaining information. Having trouble expressing myself and not being able to retrieve words. After working as an editor at one point, this is unbelievably disheartening.

However, one event topped them all: I fell for a (well-designed, admittedly) bank scam where I gave out my Social Security Number despite having taken my work’s cybersecurity training course the previous week, and having received constant reminders from my bank that they will never ask for my SSN over the phone. Besides making me feel unimaginably STUPID, it cost me a good deal of money, time and nerves. 

“Helpless” is not even the best word to describe how I feel. “Hopeless” is a more apt term. “Exposed” and “vulnerable” work too. This begs the question: how much more damage will I do to myself before things start improving? I should be working full-time instead of part-time, given the cost of living in my area. But how can I even think of looking for another job when I’m on such shaky ground? Cancer knocked me down in ways that I never anticipated. Yes, I’m grateful for being alive, but YEESH!

Building new neuronal connections, identifying what aspects of my memory issues are most severe, practicing mindfulness as much as humanly possible — it will take all that, along with a healthy dose of patience, to start seeing improvement. Hope I don’t get distracted and drive off a cliff before then.

Invisible Effects: Chemo Brain

Ah, chemo brain: the eater of thoughts. I should note that what I’m experiencing might not just be the effects of chemotherapy messing with my brain cells. This could also be influenced by the estradiol-blocking drug Tamoxifen that is forcing me into menopause before my natural time, or it could simply be the menopause “fog” that women complain about. So I don’t know exactly what it is, besides being infuriating.

I lose thoughts in an instant. Sometimes I actually “see” them disappear in the distance. It’s such a weirdly tangible sensation. I can try to grasp at their coattails and occasionally I’m successful in latching onto the thoughts and pulling them back. Other times I need to stop and walk back through my thought processes to retrieve them. And then sometimes they’re just gone. My desk at work is covered with post-it notes as a testament to what’s going on in my noggin. If there’s something I need to do I need to write it down NOW, and it’s not unusual for me to lose the thought as I’m in the process of getting something to write it down on!

This is what a walk down my memory lane looks like.

I can juggle up to three things in my mind at a time if I keep repeating them over and over again and work to maintain focus. Any more than that and it quickly crosses into the realm of hopelessness — it’s like knowing how to juggle three balls but if someone tosses a fourth at you, they all crash to the ground.

Then there are those chunks of awareness that disappear. It may simply be distraction and losing focus, but it feels like a hiccup in time that I don’t notice until it’s happened. It’s that “huh?” feeling as I return to present time when I realize that I’ve been gone for a second or two.

More disconcerting is a strange myopia that prevents me from reacting normally in a familiar situation. For instance, several months ago I treated a red light like a stop sign, and this was a traffic light in my neighborhood. I stopped at it, then drove through it. It was a “T” intersection that’s not terribly busy, but I did get shocked back to reality by the angry honk of a car that had the green and was probably wondering WTF I was doing. 

The bottom line is that I’m distractable beyond belief. My train of thought gets derailed before it even leaves the station. The first time I noticed this, my oncologist ordered a brain MRI, way back in February. Nope, couldn’t blame it on a brain tumor — it’s just chemo brain.

This feels demoralizing, especially since my memory used to be so good. I lament losing all those awesome thoughts and ideas. And I know they were awesome because I remember having them — I just can’t recall exactly what they were. Yeah, there will be more, but I better have a notepad nearby to write them down. I even had a better ending for this post, but, you know…

Treating the Whole Patient

Falling ill in the 1960s, my grandmother was never told by her doctors that she had pancreatic cancer. That seemed to be a fairly common tact when the outcome was bleak: there was no question the end was coming once you got a diagnosis, so why stress the patient even more? 

And survivorship? What was that? Surviving was a long shot and anyone who did make it through was told to be happy that they were still alive. Lingering side effects were considered a small price to pay. But with the advent of more effective treatments, the population of survivors has grown significantly. These days, there is a future for cancer patients, and with that a growing need to address the distresses that may plague former patients for many years to come. 

There are the physical repercussions that we often hear about, such as neuropathy, lymphedema and heart troubles. But more attention needs to be paid to what goes on in the space between patients’ ears. The psychological effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment can be just as, if not more, debilitating and long-lasting. 

It’s the pain no one else sees that hurts the most.

I am fortunate to live in an area of the United States with exceptional medical care and several highly reputable cancer centers. However, I’m even luckier that the particular hospital system my family is part of has gone to great lengths to make sure that they treat the whole patient, offering outstanding psychological support at the cancer center. Not only are there support groups and a variety of classes, but there are exceptional clinical counselors available to deal specifically with mental health issues associated with cancer. Based on what I’ve been told by patients at other facilities, such an enhanced level of emotional support is a rarity.

This is disappointing. We have finally chipped away at the stigma surrounding cancer and have improved the survival rate, but we have much more to do to support patients and survivors in treating the emotional effects of the disease.

Cancer Patient vs. Cancer Survivor

This was the situation: I finished chemo, finished radiation. I had gotten to bang the “Whoopie! I’m done!” gong in the radiation oncology patient waiting area — very satisfying. I had my “exit interview” with the cancer staff. The worst was over.

Every cancer patient looks forward to the end of treatment and a clean bill of health. As a matter of fact, I’d been so focused on finishing that even when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I really couldn’t see past that point. Chemo was the monster that consumed me. I had dreamed about the end of treatment for weeks and weeks, trying to hold on mentally until that final infusion, and after that, the last radiation appointment. Finally, that day had come.

However, I still parked in the familiar “cancer patient” spots in the parking garage that allowed me quicker access to the hospital buildings, a necessity on busy days when I needed to get to my appointments promptly. My chemo port was still in because I would be receiving Herceptin (monoclonal antibody) infusions for about six more months, and even though Herceptin doesn’t have noticeable side effects, it had the potential to affect my heart. 

So was I well? Was I sick? The tumor was gone, the treatment was over, my scans had come back clear, but the questions remained. My sense of self had experienced a powerful upheaval during treatment and I felt lost. As much as I hated it, I’d become comfortable with the idea of being a cancer patient. That was the known. The unknown was what came after that. 

Okay, where to now?

The unknown is scary and the uncertainty doesn’t simply go away. When you’re a patient, your medical team works out a plan based on your specific situation, and that’s your roadmap for the length of your treatment. When you pass into survivorship, you travel off the edge of the map. The remission rate for breast cancer is remarkably good, but it’s not guaranteed. 

At some point, I left the map. I have the rest of my life to get comfortable navigating through what comes next.

Survivor’s Guilt and “Noel”

After posting about missing the “downtime” of chemotherapy, I need to talk about how much of a privilege it is to be here writing that. I get to reminisce about the positives of being allowed to have no other job but to rest and recover.

Sometimes I complain about chemo brain, sometimes I wonder why *I* got cancer when those who take worse care of themselves seem to get off scott-free. I’ve left the initial fears about death behind me. Yes, my cancer may come back, but right now I’m in a good place with a good prognosis. My reality is that I will be able to enjoy this holiday season and focus on being with family, feeling physically healthy and “normal” again.

I have friends who are currently going through treatment. And you can bet that they would give anything to not have to be there, in the same way that I would have when it was happening to me. Some of my friends may eventually get to the place that I am now; for others, this may be the last stage of their lives.

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“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”   ~Gandalf, The Return of the King

This is not lost on me. In fact, it’s something that I think about a lot. As we approach Thanksgiving, I am very grateful that I’m doing well, not even a full year after completing my last treatment. In addition to my gratitude, however, I carry a lot of guilt. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. And many will be diagnosed with other cancers or other life-threatening illnesses. At any given time, there are so many of us going through the shock, fear and psychological and physical suffering of various treatments. How can I complain about my lingering discomforts when I have the pleasure of being here and experiencing them?

There are many things that could have been worse for me. But they weren’t. The more time that passes, the less I worry about why I got cancer and wonder more why I am one of the fortunate ones. As difficult as it is to put my cancer experience behind me and move on as if nothing happened, it’s even harder to do so knowing that I am leaving behind others who will not make it.

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I’ve met a lot of fellow cancer patients in the infusion room, some with metastatic cancer. There’s one in particular I cannot forget. I’ll call her “Noel” since I met her heading into the 2017 holiday season and her mother privately told me that she wasn’t expected to survive past Christmas. Noel was a friendly and sweet woman with aggressive breast cancer. We chatted about hair regrowth as mine was just barely beginning to come back, and she shared with me Facebook photos of what her hair looked like after her first breast cancer treatments were completed. Eighteen months later, the cancer had returned with a vengeance. Noel was divorced with two pre-adolescent daughters. Her mother told me that as Noel’s situation deteriorated, it also devastated her daughters, who were witnesses to their mother’s decline. Luckily, their father was very supportive and provided as much care and love as he could.

I was heartbroken as I left the infusion room that day. I don’t know ultimately what happened to Noel, although I expect the worst. Cancer is a horrible beast that ravages the patient, but also takes the family down with it. I think, “What a blessing to not have to go through that.” But that thought catches on my conscience. I’m still here; do I deserve to be?

Recounting this story a year later, that guilt weighs even heavier now. I feel an obligation to make good use of the time remaining.