So, I’m Still Alive. Now What?

I spent much of 2017 focused on death and how to avoid it. When you’re smacked with a cancer diagnosis, time slows down. You only see as far as the next test results, holding your breath for a week at a time until you get news, followed by the next suggested steps. Your life becomes an “if-then” flow chart. Finally you get a concrete treatment plan, but that also limits your view of the future. Treatments are like stepping stones across a foggy river. You know the other side is out there, but you can only focus on the step in front of you, and for good reason. These are the most labored steps that you’ve taken since learning to walk. The process is exhausting, and wishes of “You can do it, you’re a fighter” are received with reluctance. Honestly, you don’t want to fight anymore. You want it to end.

Eventually it does. You’re done with treatments and have to deal with a future of ambiguity. The stepping stones then become scans and the space between them widens, allowing normality to seep in. Lingering side effects become fuzzy annoyances. Some days you forget you were a cancer patient. Having your hair grow back helps – a bald head is a constant reminder, but as the hair comes in, you look less chemo and more sporty. “Cancer” ceases to sound like a terrifying death sentence. Distance gives you perspective. You move forward.

And now…what? You are not the same person. Maybe it’s the fear and anxiety, maybe it’s the chemo drugs, maybe it’s the weeks of daily radiation, but something inside you is different. I describe it as a nagging urge to find a new dimension of life. Perhaps it’s another version of searching for my “why”, but it’s not a big leap to convince yourself that there was a purpose to your journey that goes beyond just the treatments. There is a feeling of inner wisdom that needs to be expressed. The most difficult part is figuring out how to do this in the time that you have left on this earth.

Exercise, Eat Right and Get Cancer Anyway

I need to get this off my chest (no pun intended), because it drove me absolutely nutso for a long time. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason whatsoever for me to get breast cancer, and a gazillion reasons for me not to. I had fantasies of taking the breast self-exam instructional card that hangs in our shower and running it through the shredder, flipping it off as it disappeared into the steely maw. That’s because on the backside of the card were guidelines to reduce one’s risk of getting breast cancer, and it was infuriating how anemic the suggestions were, as in, they were setting the bar pretty low: “maintain a healthy weight” (been doing that for a long time), “add exercise into your routine”, (are you kidding me? Strength training, rowing, the whole nine yards!), “limit your alcohol intake” (WHAT? I don’t even freakin’ drink!!!). Every time I looked at that card, I fumed. I had gone to great lengths to follow health rules to a T, always erred on the side of caution to the point of being anal about it. When my doc felt the breast lump that I pointed out to her–the one that I’d felt for a good six months but had not gotten checked out because I had no risk factors and I was always fretting about health stuff that turned out to be nothing and I didn’t want to waste the co-pay and the lump was probably going to go away on its own soon, blah blah blah–I was shaken by both her obvious concern and the warning not to put off getting the diagnostic mammogram done.

Obviously, things did not turn out as I’d hoped. Ergo, this blog…

Following all these guidelines touted to reduce your risk of breast cancer, and then being the one among all my relatives to get it was intensely frustrating. I was the health nut, the vegetarian, the exerciser, habits for which I’d gotten my share of ribbing.  I spent a lot of time angry about this, searching for answers why. Maybe there was something I had missed? Was it the plastic straws? Contaminated toothpaste? Radiation from outer space?

Then there was the emotional fall-out, an effect of my perfectionist tendencies. I felt shame, as if I were being judged and people would think that I must not have been “following the rules”. Were they gloating at me? Other women who were not paragons of healthy living didn’t have cancer. But I did? I felt the need to explain myself, as if I risked getting kicked out of some “healthy persons’ club”. There is a popular expectation that the only time people my age exert themselves is when they’re chased by their neighbor’s pitbull. Or running down a Black Friday special. But to actively work at maintaining a healthy existence for the sake of maintaining a healthy existence and presumably a healthy future? Not the typical 50-something. I prided myself on being different and was free of health problems for years, but getting smacked down by cancer…that’s a pretty big one. So was all the effort and exercise and veggie consumption worth it?

Undoubtedly.

What helped calm my anger was looking at my situation this way: Would I not have gotten breast cancer if I ate meat? Or was overweight? Would I have been spared if I drank alcohol or smoked? Or led a sedentary existence?

While following all the rules and recommendations didn’t prevent my cancer, I can unequivocally say that it accelerated my recovery. And I do not for a second regret the effort that went into that focused mindset. Yes, I still wanted to feed the breast self-exam card to the shredder. Many times. But that’s because I forgot that statistics are great for defining populations, but ultimately they don’t matter when it comes to the individual. When you have cancer, your chance of having cancer is 100%. I wanted answers, but so does every cancer researcher out there. As my surgeon reminded me, “If we knew why, we could cure it.” And I’d be up for a Nobel prize.

So, I don’t know why. Of course, since I’ve mulled this over and over, I’ve got a load of theories, some more convincing than others. It’s part of my nature to want to know the why so that I can feel a sense of control over what is a very frightening disease. But I don’t have that. I do, however, have a determined nature and am happy to eat plant-based foods and find pleasure in exercise, and for the time being I will be content in that.

Reprocessing Cancer

My parents are owned by a Siberian husky (if you’ve ever lived with a husky, you understand). She is spoiled beyond belief and loved beyond measure. But no matter how much she’s allowed to get away with, she still needs baths and getting her into the bathtub takes cajoling, muscle and a healthy dose of determination on the part of the two human seniors. This is no small feat since the love that my parents and their circle of friends showered upon her has resulted in making the husky, well, even more husky (she’s currently on a weight loss journey). But once she’s been bathed and toweled off, our husky does something curious: she always returns to the bathroom to sniff the tub and faucet, as if she’s trying to make sense of what happened to her.

I find that I’m a lot like her. You would think that after the anxiety associated with my cancer diagnosis, the fear of the treatment and having to endure chemo and radiation, plus a year of Herceptin infusions, I would want to stay as far away as possible from anything cancer-related. In the beginning, that was the case. References to cancer seemed to be everywhere I turned, and I struggled to avoid the thought of it. I was terrified by the ambiguity of my situation.

But now that treatments are over, I find myself drawn to cancer information. MW/MSW (my clinical counselor) calls it reprocessing, as I explore how I’ve been affected by this journey. I run the gamut from viewing it as the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me, all the way to the biggest blessing I’ve ever received. That’s a pretty wide spread! The more daylight that comes between my final treatment and my current place in time, the more curious I become. Cancer is no longer the “big C” for me, it’s a word in lowercase. It’s as if I’m dipping my toe into the lake where I almost drowned, and slowly moving deeper, determined the tread the waters with me in control this time. Not like the crazy roller-coaster ride that I had the first time.

Things are different now. Not only do I have perspective, but I also have a sense of peace through mindfulness. The impetus to begin a meditation practice was one of the gifts I got from cancer, and it has affected every aspect of my life. I have rediscovered yoga. And I sport a cool, edgy hairstyle that I would have never had the guts to get on my own. Cancer is a familiar concept now, and I want to know more about it, want to understand what happened, how I can prevent it from happening again, and how I can help someone else newly embarking on that journey.