One of the most intense emotions that I felt after being diagnosed with cancer was anger. I felt betrayed by my body and the medical community. I’d done everything that I had been told I was supposed to do to bring my breast cancer risk down to as close to zero as I could, and still cancer found me.
In reality, until we discover what causes cancer, we can never eliminate our risk of the disease. Of course, I wasn’t thinking like that. I had been completely blindsighted (as, I’ve learned, so many are) and was furious about it.
So when I read a suggestion about finding things to be grateful for, I scoffed at it. Until I actually thought about what I could potentially be grateful for.
The result was overwhelming. In the midst of what had gone wrong, there was so much that had gone right! So many things that could have been worse, so many lucky coincidences that improved my situation. So much to be grateful for! Where my way had been obstructed by brambles and thorns, now lay a welcoming path.
I sat slack-jawed, humbled by my many blessings, as if they had been planned out to benefit me. If I had to develop invasive breast cancer, then so many things were working together to make my journey easier.
I kept a gratitude list and continually added to it. Invariably when I sat down to write my mood would gently soften. Even so, I struggled. There was a perpetual tug of war between hot emotions and the soothing breeze of gratitude. Many times the heat would overtake me.
Time has passed and distance offers perspective, and while I am not perfect in making space for all the frustration associated with repercussions of my treatment, I understand the importance of working on it.
Every night, therefore, right before bed, I make a list of five things that I am grateful for. They don’t need to be big and they don’t even need to have taken place that day (although often they have). If they’ve evoked gratitude, they qualify.
I can always find at least five things and that is a heartening thought.
Settling into bed, thoughts of wonderful things fill my head and put a smile on my face, shepherding me to sleep. There is no better way to end the day.
For those unfamiliar with the drug tamoxifen, its purpose is to block estradiol receptors in an effort to decrease the chances of developing hormone receptor positive breast cancer. My own tumor had been estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, so tamoxifen is pretty much standard fare for women in my situation.
The trick is, however, to make sure women keep taking the medication, and the side effects may make that a challenge. The current recommendation for pre-menopausal women with hormone receptor positive cancer is ten years of tamoxifen. When I posted after a year of taking tamoxifen, I was experiencing minor side effects but had managed to avoid the worst hot flashes and night sweats that many women complain of. And even the side effects I had I couldn’t completely pin on the drug.
After a year and a half of tamoxifen, the landscape has changed. My estradiol level, which was 36 pg/mL when I started in November 2017, has dropped to 22 pg/mL. I’m still not having a significant problem with body temperature regulation, although this may change with the summer months.
There are, however, other distressing issues that are becoming increasingly problematic:
1. Memory lapses. I’ve written about this in a number of other posts, but it deserves mention again because it’s not getting any better. I struggle with distractability and loss of focus, which compromise my ability to do my current job. There are details that I simply miss, and I have a hard time juggling things in my head. Yes, I write everything down and follow my own advice, but there are days that I want to give up and go home.
Bottom line, even with workarounds, my concentration makes me ineffective at times. That alone could be a deciding factor in how long I will last on this medication, but it’s not the only one.
2. Fatigue. This has become more noticeable and is affecting my workouts. I feel like I’m losing ground on my fitness. While I’m no stranger to working out even when I don’t feel like it, there are days that I feel beat before I begin, and like I’ve been run over by a truck by the time I’m done. Exercise is such a crucial part of recovery and good health — and a very important part of my life — that it seems ridiculous that my treatment should be getting in the way of it!
3. Loss of libido and emotional attachment. This would be easier to take if I were single and living alone, but dealing with this side effect in the context of a relationship is getting progressively more difficult. It is not simply romantic desire that has dwindled; feelings of affection for my husband and children have dulled. I know I love them and feel a strong sense of responsibility for them, but there’s a numbness where there used to be warm emotions. It breaks my heart because I don’t want to feel this way.
4. Depression/mood swings. On the plus side, I know what’s going on and am actively working with my counselor on dealing with these fluctuations, but these are side effects of the drug, so as long as I’m taking it, I feel like I’m trying to bail water out of a sinking boat with a spoon.
5. Argh, again with the hair! After regrowing my hair following chemo, it has been thinning from tamoxifen. This may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but if you’ve ever lost your hair to cancer treatment, you know that it can be a emotional experience. Getting your hair back is a big deal, but thinning hair brings back a sense of helplessness and lack of control.
Notice that the effects above are not readily apparent — even the thinning hair might not be as noticeable to an observer as it is to me. It’s easier to understand visible health-related consequences, but we as a society have a hard time getting our head around (or expressing concern for) the importance and impact that emotional factors have on quality of life. You can’t see my concentration difficulties or depressive mood or grief over numbed affection, but they affect me as strongly as do any physical symptoms.
This is a good place to stop and mention gratitude. The fact that I write this post as a former cancer patient on a maintenance drug to help keep my cancer from re-occurring…that is a privilege. My good fortune is not lost on me, and it is something I think about every single day. We have come a long way in treating my type of breast cancer and I am the beneficiary of those advances.
But there is also an expectation that now that chemo and radiation are done and my scans are clean, I should be “back to normal”. I would like nothing more than that, but I’m not there.
This brings me to a deal I made with myself: I promise to do my utmost to last through five years of tamoxifen. However, years 6-10 remain to be seen. At some point, the scales will tip and quality of life will win out over whatever purported percentage of increased survivorship the full decade of the drug can offer me. This offers me some strength to push on and focus on the present, doing the best I can with what I have.
I have beside my bed a 7-day pillbox. Since I avoid taking pills whenever possible, opting for alternatives to medication, there is only one lonely but mandatory pill in each little box corresponding to the day of the week.
That’s tamoxifen, a final remnant of breast cancer treatment that I’ll be taking for years to come.
I observe the passage of time by the disappearance of the daily pills. They mark the days that I work and the days that I don’t (weekends and Wednesdays). Sunday mornings the pillbox is full. The work week looms before us bringing early mornings and sleepy heads. Wednesday provides a brief respite with an extra hour of sleep and a day crammed with personal errands at home rather than office work. When Thursday rolls around and I return to my job, only the Friday and Saturday pills are left until it’s time to refill the box again.
The weeks seem to go by more quickly as I get older. Time feels slippery and days fuzz into the background. Weeks pass into months as pills are consumed. I’m unsettled by the possibility that when my decade of tamoxifen ends, I’ll realize that I spent ten years waiting the pills to finish and missing what was going on in the moment. It frightens me into wanting to distinguish this week’s row of pills from the next, to make next week different from the last.
I pause as I plop a fresh row of pills into their designated boxes. Could I be kinder to those around me? React more calmly? Sleep better? Support the needs of others more? View my shortfalls with compassion?
Every morning I am able to get out of bed and place my feet flat on the Earth. That is something to be very grateful for, no matter how difficult my week. I represent the fortunate ones who have been given the opportunity to remain alive and present in “now” and appreciate every precious day more than the one before.
Unbeknownst to me, the friend whom I wrote about in “Waiting To Say Goodbye” had already passed by the time I posted last Saturday. The end came very rapidly but peacefully Friday at sundown, allowing just enough time to enable her to be surrounded by everyone in her immediate family.
This is sudden and painful. She and I had spent a good chunk of 2017 sharing breast cancer treatment experiences. We knew that there were no guarantees with cancer, but we both had hope. Neither one of us imagined that this would be one of the outcomes.
After she knew her cancer had spread, she continued living as she always had, toughing through the hard parts. She didn’t want people asking her how she was feeling, she wanted to keep on going until she couldn’t go anymore, and that’s what she did. Her decline was so swift that she had felt well enough to do everything normally until the last few days before her passing. That was a beautiful gift that she genuinely deserved.
Understanding that nothing in this life is permanent doesn’t make her death any easier to accept, although it does underscore how things change no matter how desperately we cling to them. I strive to practice non-attachment, but who am I kidding? I am too attached to people and expectations. Yes, it does cause suffering, but right now suffering is just what I do.
Eventually I may transcend this. Eventually.
I end this post with a quote from Claire Wineland, the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis activist who passed away from complications from lung transplant surgery on September 2, 2018. She had spent most of her days knowing that her time on this Earth was short and urged people to live life to the fullest: “Go enjoy it, ’cause there are people fighting like hell for it.”
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.
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.
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.
This was one of the nicest surprises that I received throughout all of treatment.
Growing up, I always associated surgery with umpteen stitches that required removal. Then again, I also associated cancer with certain death. Luckily, neither one is a definite anymore. Since I’d never needed major surgery before, I had no idea that surgical glue is a thing. And what a thing it is! It would have probably been different if I’d had a mastectomy, but with a simple lumpectomy to remove a not-so-big tumor…all the stitches were dissolvable and internal.
On the outside, there was glue. It was plastic-y, kind of like if someone had taken nail polish and drawn a stripe across the incision, only it was more pliable. As my incisions healed, the glue flaked off. There were no dressings to change, no bandages necessary at all. Not having external stitches was a beautiful gift from my surgeon.
If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that psychologically I didn’t handle the concept of cancer well. It took me on an anxiety-fueled roller-coaster ride, as I went from a healthy, active woman to a cancer patient. I have a stubborn expectation of normality in my life, and over the years I’ve put a lot of work into maintaining it. Cancer blew that to shreds. And in a funny way, that little strip of glue brought a bit of “normal” back to me.
Or more accurately “Breast Changes, Lack Thereof.”
This one threw me for a loop. Prior to my lumpectomy, I scoured the internet for ideas of what partial breast removal looked like. In a word, disfigurement. Certainly, having half a breast was preferable to having no breast or dying from breast cancer, but I wondered how I would deal with losing a secondary sex characteristic that society uses as an indication of female-ness. My breasts had nursed two bouncing babies into toddlerhood and cancer was going to take one of them (breasts, not babies!). That kept me up at night.
After dying a thousand deaths, I found that my reality was not nearly as frightening. My lump was small and sitting at about 2 o’clock on my left breast. That put it dangerously close to my axillary (armpit) lymph nodes, which could enable the cancer to spread faster, but also in a place where tissue removal would be less noticeable. Three sentinel lymph nodes were removed from my armpit — they were found to be unaffected. My surgeon was able to get “clear margins” (no cancer cells were seen on the edge of the tissue that was removed) on the cancerous lump, and if not for the scars, there was little indication that I’d had surgery.
That blew my mind. With small breasts, I didn’t think I could spare the tissue. I was contemplating a prosthesis, and concerned that the size of the excision might tempt me to go with reconstructive surgery…but none of that was necessary. Even my surgeon was surprised. I told her it was because she was an excellent surgeon, but she wouldn’t accept the compliment. According to her, I was just very lucky.
After radiation treatment, that breast tightened up and even gained a bit of size. All at no extra cost.
So, whenever I do a gratitude meditation and count my blessings, I reflect upon this. There are so many things that could have been worse, and I had gotten lost in the terror of it all. But in the end, it was okay.
Note: I wanted to show how similar both breasts looked, but then there’s all this potential for getting flagged as inappropriate, so you’ll need to be content with “side boob” photos and just take my word for it.