Between the Past and Future: A Cancer Survivor’s Perspective

I attended a workshop on cancer and stress given by the social workers at my cancer center. Since I like to take advantage of every opportunity to explore what’s going on inside my noggin I was looking forward to the presentation, but I didn’t realize that I would be offered a curious vantage point at the same time.

Sitting in the front row as I always do, I was joined by a woman who was awaiting the results of her second breast tumor biopsy; her first had confirmed cancer but another tumor was discovered shortly thereafter.

She told me about her racing thoughts, lack of appetite, inability to sleep — all those symptoms of intense stress that I also experienced as I awaited diagnosis. How odd it was to revisit this through her, now that I had a comfortable seat on the other side of that experience.

I commiserated with her, briefly offering up my own experience, and assured her that some of the anxiety would mellow once she had a definitive diagnosis and accompanying treatment plan. That’s the only thing I assured her of, knowing the nature of cancer, but I hope it gave her comfort seeing how far I’d already made it on the cancer journey.

And then, ironically, I realized that the woman sitting directly behind me was someone I had sat next to during one of my chemo infusions in 2017. I re-introduced myself, and while she didn’t remember me, she said she’d been through so many chemo sessions that it was hard to differentiate one from the other.

When I met her in 2017, she had hair and a good dose of energy. We talked about our kids (hers were grown) among other things. She was being treated for lung cancer but we didn’t dwell on the particulars. That’s not generally what you talk about during chemo. You gravitate towards non-cancer topics.

Things don’t always turn out the way we predict they will.

But now, she wore a ball cap to cover her bare head and walked with a cane. She seemed frail and was accompanied by a caregiver — several years of cancer treatment, not to mention the cancer itself, will do that to you. I’m not sure what her prognosis was, but given what I knew about her and the fact that she was still doing chemo, it probably wasn’t favorable.

There I sat, trying to stay present, next to my past and in front of my potential future. I had the good fortune of surviving the one and a decent chance of escaping the other.

There is no crystal ball with which we can gauge the future, deciding whether or not we like it, and if not, opting out. So here’s to making the best of the time that we have.

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.

Another Hairy Situation

It wasn’t until almost a year and a half after my last chemo that I finally got a professional, high-caliber haircut. After an adult life filled with boring medium-to-long hair in a ponytail, this was an about-face: a short and very stylish ‘do.

I don’t think I would have ventured to try this if I hadn’t been pushed into it by chemo. Then again, cancer pushed all my boundaries further than I would have gone on my own. I’ve always played it safe, but with cancer, there was no “safe”.

When chemo took my hair, I had no say in it. As the hair grew back, it did so slowly and in a pattern that was not attractive. Nothing I could do about it but be patient.

Front shot of my awesome new pixie cut! The hair on top is full and feels thick. I love the look!
Back view. This was the part of my head that unnerved me in the middle of the night. It felt so bare and brought back all sorts of scary feelings.

But in 2019, I was in charge and could decide at what length I wanted to keep my hair. I’d been surprised by how much I liked the new “me” with a short style, so I thought I’d be adventurous and go even shorter. My hairstylist happily obliged and this past week I got a full-on pixie cut that was absolutely adorable. It felt great to be calling the shots and reclaiming myself and my look.

But something unexpected happened that night. I woke in the darkness, unsettled with a touch of panic. My head felt bare, like my hair had crossed the threshold between short and “omigodthatisTOOshort”. For a split second, everything felt out of control again.

It took a bit to calm myself down in the pre-dawn hours of the day. I had wanted to be brave and cut my hair shorter, but it elicited those old feelings of the unknown. Wait, I reminded myself, all of this was “known” now. I knew my hair would grow back again. Add to that, several days before, I’d had a mammogram that confirmed I was in remission. So there was no need for the fears.

Be that as it may, it wasn’t so simple to let the feelings go. My hair carried powerful associations that had been seared into my unconscious mind. Losing locks to chemo meant relinquishing a part of me. While I thought I already understood its importance — I’ve written about it in a number of posts — it wasn’t until that night that I realized how tightly my hair was wound up in all those memories and sensations.

You’d think that once the hair grew in, everything would return to normal and there’d be nothing more to say about it. Not so, I’m finding, as I get hit in the face by these unexpected reminders of exactly what having cancer meant to me. Sorting everything out seems to get more complicated the further away I get from treatment. Who knew survivorship could be such a head trip?

About That Boob Job…

Not gonna happen.

The funny thing about telling people that you have breast cancer: their eyes always seem to glance down at your chest, as if they’re thinking, “Wait, are those real?”

Our society puts a lot of value on breasts, way more than just as vehicles for nourishing our young. As a dedicated breastfeeder of two children, I was surprised by how many women admitted to me that they wouldn’t breastfeed because they didn’t want their breasts to sag.

There’s also this weird assumption that a woman will jump at the chance to “improve” her breasts; in the case of a breast cancer patient, hey, congratulations, you get “free” implants! YAY! After I related my diagnosis to a male friend, he noted that finally my husband would get the C-cups that he’s always dreamed of.

Stop. Go back and re-read that last sentence. It was my breast cancer, but my husband would “benefit” from it too. Yay.

“Bummer about your cancer diagnosis, but at least you’ll get a nice pair out of it.”

If you’ve read about my breast cancer experience, you’ll know that a mastectomy was unnecessary because my tumor was small enough to require only a lumpectomy. My recovery from surgery was short — I was back to work the following week.

However, my insurance would have covered removing far more breast along with reconstruction. None of this, as far as I’m concerned, would have been medically justifiable, but there was the expectation that breast cancer equals boob job, even when studies have shown that survival outcomes are not improved by complete removal of the breast when only a lumpectomy is indicated (for example, Fisher et al., 2002), and there are far more complications that can arise from the multiple surgeries necessary for reconstruction.

This, of course, was my personal preference. To be fair, I know a number of breast cancer survivors who had no other option than a radical mastectomy. That in itself is traumatic, so it’s perfectly understandable why they would want reconstruction in an effort to regain whatever normality they could. As I wrote in Body Image, Part 1, like it or not, breasts do define us as women. You can argue whether or not that sets women’s rights back (“I am not my breasts”) but I feel that when it comes to cancer, all bets are off. Breast cancer survivors deserve a lot of leeway in making decisions about whether or not to reconstruct.

Those who do choose reconstruction may still have a host of other issues that they have to contend with (see the Healthline article: “No One Talks About the Emotional Side of Breast Reconstruction”). So it’s not all wine and roses and Double-Ds.

I didn’t need a complete mastectomy and thereby did not augment my tiny breasts even though I could have. For me, this was not a matter of “looking better” or “taking advantage” of the situation the way others suggested I should. It was about maintaining the greatest degree of normality, getting though the experience and trying to get on with life.

Invisible Effects: Libido, Where Art Thou?

I was warned about this. I mean, where do you want to start counting the reasons for libido to take a hike? Anxiety of a cancer diagnosis, fear of losing breasts (the societal hallmarks of femininity), chemotherapy (which pretty much kills everything), tamoxifen (blocks estrogen, so there go the hormones)…

Out of all the things touched by breast cancer and its treatment, this is one of the most personal that not only affects the patient but also the one you love, because it throws a monkey wrench into your relationship. As with many of these “invisible effects” of cancer, this one is not discussed enough, but really should be.

A marriage that is strong should survive this. A marriage that is new or rocky may take more damage. Married your wife mainly because she had long blonde hair, lovely breasts and looked good in your Porsche? Uh-oh. Stories circulate about the high percentage of divorces that result from lack of adherence to the “in sickness and in health” part of marriage vows. I’ve read that those statistics are inflated, and yet, it’s hard to ignore confirmed instances of, “he didn’t find me attractive anymore,” or “she no longer wanted to have sex with me.”

Emotional isolation is a real possibility following cancer treatment if you’re not communicating effectively with your significant other.

In my experience, all the effects of cancer dropped onto your libido won’t necessarily squash it into oblivion. But they do add a degree of difficulty in maintaining intimacy. There is nothing normal about having cancer, and so it’s not surprising that it wrings the “normal” out of a marriage. Communication is critical, and if things are going to break down, I think that’s where it’ll happen.

It’s not that there wasn’t desire throughout my cancer treatment. It’s that it was hard to Tetris sex into the chemo schedule, when I was dead tired and feeling like the lining of my GI tract had sloughed off. Hubby was taking care of the kids and I was lucky if I could make it to the toilet by myself. Perhaps desire was there, but any available energy was better utilized for self-care.

Chemotherapy left me feeling very “neuter”, in that gray area between female and male. Being scrawny and bald didn’t help. I didn’t look feminine and felt even less so. My reality was fuzzy, as if I had one foot in this world and one in the next, which wasn’t the greatest recipe for firing up desire. We went through about a year of unintentional celibacy and that took a lot of discussion to patch up.

Now in survivorship, sexual intimacy has taken a backseat to the rest of life. I mean, I’m still alive, so I’d better make the most of it, and languishing in bed is not where I want to be. I’ve spent enough time supine. Weekdays I need to get the kids ready for school and get myself to work. On weekend mornings, there are workouts to do, posts to write, meditations to finish, coffee to brew. If there are insufficient hormones to drive me into the arms of my beloved, then he’s left to get a few extra hours of sleep while I get on with life. Once in a while, we reconnect, but we’re behind the curve on this.

At the same time, intimacy is an inextricable part of a healthy long-term relationship. I am not giving up on finding my mojo again, but as with everything in cancer recovery, it’s going to take time.

Invisible Effects: Cancer Ain’t Cheap

In the midst of trying to avoid dying from cancer, and being fortunate enough to have health insurance, I wasn’t thinking about the cost of treatment. I couldn’t get past the thought of having cancer, the incoming test results and what my treatment options were.

But even with excellent insurance, there were a lot of expenses. Every doctor’s visit dinged us, as did every infusion. Surgeries (biopsy, lumpectomy, port placement) came with co-pays, some in the hundreds. A trip to the emergency room for an infected fingernail (thank you, chemo) was a few hundred.

Did I need this treatment? Yes! Do I regret spending this money? No! I received excellent care from my oncology team in addition to some amazing freebies that were offered by the cancer center, not the least of which was truly exceptional counseling. As someone with degrees in psychology, I feel that therapeutic psychological support during cancer treatment is an absolute necessity, and I was blessed to have an amazing Clinical Counselor. Additionally, the Nurse Navigator assigned to me had also been a breast cancer patient and was able to offer insight and support that I wouldn’t have been able to get from just anyone.

But once I got through the initial shock of my diagnosis, I had to start asking, “Is this covered by my insurance?” While some treatment was non-negotiable (surgery, chemo, radiation) there were things that I didn’t get (lymphedema compression sleeve) because a costs–benefits analysis suggested I could get by without them, and other things (genetic testing, 3-D mammogram) that I sprang for because they were well worth the peace of mind.

The financial impact of cancer may be one of the “downsides” of survivorship.

What saved us as a family was that there was an out-of-pocket maximum that limited how much financial damage we incurred. I consider myself unbelievably lucky because of that, particularly with two kids only a handful of years away from applying to college. Our savings did take a hit as the expenses piled up, but it was much, much smaller than it could have been.

I dodged that pricey bullet, but there are so many others who do not. The financial impact of cancer is not discussed enough. When I started researching the actual cost of all my treatment — not the fairytale insured version that I was so fortunate to pay — I was absolutely dumbfounded. The price tag topped $100k for my chemo alone! Going through treatment without insurance would have devastated us. Survivors go bankrupt over this.

Medical bills aside, there are costs to be incurred simply from lost work due to treatment and survivors may find themselves unable to work once treatment is over. Chemo brain has caused a great deal of stress for me as I face transitioning from part-time to full-time employment (a necessity due to the ridiculously high cost of living here). I am slowly learning to adjust to my lapses in concentration so that chemo brain does not pose a liability to the quality of my work. Mindfulness and meditation play a huge role in addressing these issues, as does moving towards a career that makes more use of my strengths and experiences, rather than simply looking for advancement in my current position.

I didn’t anticipate any of this when I found out I had cancer. I was so anxious about the diagnosis that the quality of my insurance didn’t even register. We thought we were ready to do “whatever it takes”. I mean, can you put a price on a life? And yet, can you plunge your family into debt with a clear conscience? These are painfully difficult questions with no good answers. It is unbelievably fortuitous that my husband had switched us to a more expensive insurance several years earlier, and heartbreaking to know that many others never had that option.

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.