I just finished teaching 8 weeks of classes. It was intense and demanding and it was the first time teaching this course since I finished treatment for breast cancer. When I was first diagnosed, I was not sure I would ever finish treatment, survive this long, go back to work, or ever feel better. Teaching was hard. But, I am back.
I am, piece by piece, attempting to get my life back.
I remember joking with a friend of mine this time last year after he remarked how it was good to see me still in one piece . . . I laughed and told him that it was “the piece that was still left”. (After all there had been surgeries and parts removed).
I thought it was very funny at the time. I know some of my friends thought it was odd that I made fun of my disease. But, it was how I survived. I was not going to let cancer take away my personality and I was not going to go down feeling grim and ruined by this disease.
I laughed a lot. I cried too. I still do both.
As I work to navigate the post cancer waters I realize that there really is no “post cancer” – at least not the “post cancer” I might have envisioned. There just is not this “Oh, you’re done with cancer now, go back to the rest of your life” kind of end to things.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer I just wanted to live. I never really worried about what life after treatment would be like. I just hoped to be lucky enough to make it to that point. Now that I am here, the waters are a bit murky.
For those of us who are lucky enough to be told we have “no evidence of disease” we live in a kind of post cancer limbo. Sometimes it feels like navigating a land mine.
We know that the cancer could stay away 10 or 15 years, maybe even forever, or it could come back next week. It is a tough place to exist. None of us, cancer patients or not, can know what tomorrow will bring. But, cancer patients know what tomorrow could bring. And as a result, we live with cancer. For some of us, it is always in the back or front of our minds.
I realize now that I probably need to change the title of my blog from “My journey to becoming cancer free” to something else. That title was written from the perspective of a naive, hopeful and optimistic newly diagnosed cancer patient. I am still optimistic and I am very hopeful. I am optimistic that I can beat the odds. I am hopeful that I will never have a recurrence. But, I am no longer naive enough to think that I will ever truly live cancer free.
Cancer, plain and simple, turns your life upside down. There are so many twists and turns and there are days when the bottom of everything seems to fall out. Some days just don’t come together for me. As I push the envelope to regain another piece of my pre-cancer life, I sometimes find that I need a day to recover. Some steps forward – especially the big ones – require me to take a step or two back.
In the early days, I just wanted to survive. But, now I realize I have become greedy. I want to have my life back the way it was before. I want to be able to run just as far, to be able to physically do all of the things I could do before. I want to play stand up bass with my band for four hours straight in a night club without being tired, without ending up with lymphedema. I want to climb a tree if I want. I want to do cartwheels. I want to swim out past the pier. I want to go surfing again. I want to try new things. I want to travel, I want to finish writing my book, I want to make ends meet, I want to live without cancer.
And then, I think of a friend of mine who has stage IV cancer and I simply feel greedy – greedy to want more than what he has to settle for every day.
He told me that he lives his life in three-month chunks (in between the scans he has every three months). I am in awe at how he copes with his disease. Somehow he lives his life without cancer stamped all over it. And yet, it is there, every day. He goes to work, he creates things and he navigates a constant medical maze of hoops he must jump through just to schedule his routine scans. And as I write those words, I know there is absolutely nothing routine about his scans. What I am in awe of is that while he fears the results of every set of scans he still manages to enjoy his life on a daily basis. I think he lives his life on purpose now . . . if that makes any sense.
The best I can do “post-cancer” is to take the best care of myself that I can and to do the best I can to piece my life back together. Not every piece will fit. And there are new pieces too . . . this blog for example and my desire to do something to change the face of this disease. I haven’t figured out what that is yet. But, it is something I feel compelled to do. In the meantime, I have to be kind to myself, to allow myself those days to recover. And, when I do take days to rest I need to not think of it as being hijacked by cancer. Instead, I need to think of it as how I am piecing my life back together.