Passing Days One Pill at a Time

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.

Days melt into weeks, weeks into months. Make them count.

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.

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.

Memories of Blood, Sweat and Tears

There are some odd memories from my chemo experience that stick in my head. It was such a jumbled, frantic time when I was struggling to get a handle on what I was dealing with. I was going through my first few courses of chemo when my daughter was diligently learning the dance steps to K-Pop group BTS’ song, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Lying on the couch in the living room as she followed the dance practice video, I became involuntarily familiar with the song and its accompanying dance moves. Because of the frequency with which I heard the music, I was convinced that either I was going to love it — or would get nauseated and anxious whenever I heard the opening bars.

I never developed an aversion to it. In fact, it remains one of my favorite music videos. Any associations that I have with the song also include knowledge of having endured the chemotherapy medications and emerged on the other side of treatment. That positive perspective gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I can watch the video without any “baggage”, which is a feat for things cancer-related. The surreal nature of the video, coupled with the fact that most of it isn’t even in English, reflects my disoriented state during treatment: colorfully dreamy, occasionally inexplicable and an escape when reality became “too real” to handle.

Cancer As Divine Justice?

It’s disappointing that I feel the need to post this disclaimer, but I would be heartbroken if someone misinterpreted this post to suggest that people with cancer are being punished by God, the Universe or whomever, for something that they’ve done. THIS IS NOT THE CASE and this post is not to be twisted into a perverted view of divine justice. I hope that’s clear.


One thing that I’ve grappled with throughout my cancer experience has been the WHY of it. I don’t like uncertainty and when I looked at the risk factors associated with getting cancer, there was no reason why I should have been saddled with this disease. Yes, I realize that life is not fair, and that these things happen for reasons that we don’t understand. But when you’re in the thick of diagnostics and treatment plans and all that good stuff, you don’t think clearly. Ultimately, there is a reason, but science has not progressed enough yet to provide a definitive explanation.

So, when science can’t answer, we turn to more primal explanations. Being a Catholic, I couldn’t help but think that this was some sort of divine justice. You’ve heard of Catholic guilt? On some level, I carry around a lot of it, more than my share. It’s propelled me to be as exact as possible in all things. When a police car drives by, I fear that I’m doing something wrong. I follow rules. I don’t lie. I keep my promises and hold secrets close. I care, perhaps a touch too much. In effect, I drive myself up a freakin’ wall.

Things had been going well, physically. At 50, I was strong, fit, remarkably healthy and free from a lot of the ailments that many women my age complain of. I had no weight issues, no food issues, loved to exercise and was so happy about that. My lifestyle supported good health and longevity. But then – WHAM! – cancer diagnosis. Maybe I was too happy? Perhaps I was smug? Catholicism makes a big deal of intention, as in not thinking bad things. Whether or not this is actually practiced by members of the faith is a different issue altogether, but that’s the idea. So I immediately thought that perhaps I wasn’t humble enough about my physical state? Despite the fact that I had truly worked for it, avoided indulgences like sugar and alcohol, pushed through discomfort to exercise, maybe my thoughts had brought on some sort of divine anger, and cancer was going to put me in my place.

That’s what I thought. And YES, I am a well-educated individual who understands that mutations in the DNA occur frequently, and the body takes care of them. But mine didn’t, so any reason that seemed to make “sense”…

Even then, I am not so arrogant to garner the attention of a deity. These days, there’s quite a bit of that going around, and I couldn’t hope to compete with the obvious examples that we see in political and entertainment spheres. So it really doesn’t make sense that I would get cancer for that reason. In that case, was my confidence in my good health particularly egregious and insulting to a divine power that I would get singled out?

These are the kinds of thoughts one has in the middle of the night when one has mixed up the order of their anti-nausea medications while that the body is fighting the effects of being slammed by an elephant-sized dose of chemotherapy.

Regardless, the thought processes continue…

Maybe this went so much further than some kindergarten-style retribution? Another cancer survivor had related that the disease was the best thing to ever happen to him. In the middle of chemo, I had a hard time appreciating that. But as the end of treatment started coming into view, I began to grasp what he meant.

Of course, being Catholic, my head went to…maybe this is some sort of odd divine blessing? I have no doubt that God has a sense of humor. I imagined him being bored and seeing me through a break in the puffy white clouds and – ZAP! – I get cancer while he runs and hides behind St. Peter, giggling. So maybe I was being pranked, but in a loving, benevolent kind of way?

Truly, this cancer experience has given me a lot of direction, a sense of purpose that I had lacked. Admittedly, this is imbuing an unchecked genetic blip with a whole lot of divine power. But take the God-figure out of the equation and look at it again. Choose your interpretation. Some random mutation? Or an opportunity to redirect my life in a positive way that benefits others?

Isn’t the latter a far better choice?

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.