Last week, during one of my long commutes home, I called a good friend of mine. She had emailed me a couple of weeks ago and hinted that she may not be in such a good place at the moment. She had her own fight with breast cancer that was quite similar to mine; a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Our discussion revolved around some of the irritation we feel regarding the number of surgeries we have to undergo after the fact. For example, I had one operation prior to the big 10 and a half hour operation for the double mastectomies, and four surgeries following it. And it's not over. I will need more...
On top of the many surgeries, some patients continue their fight with either radiation or chemotherapy. I'm sure if you asked any cancer patient who has had chemo what was worse, the recovery from surgery or the chemotherapy, the overwhelming response would be the latter. The hard thing with cancer is there always seems to be an "after the fact."
Coincidentally, I have been in the process of reading Lance Armstrong's autobiography, which describes his childhood and upbringing, his cycling career, as well as his own battle with cancer. A passage in this book described the difficulty he had after all his surgeries and chemotherapy were over. This is the period that cancer survivors find the most difficult. You see, the treatment is over, the visits to the doctor's office diminish substantially and your family members start acting normally again. When the sickly pallor disappears from our faces and is replaced by more colour and our hair, eyelashes and eyebrows start to grow, everyone thinks you are cured.
But that is when the real fight of a cancer survivor begins. On the outside we look like bolder, more confident people with a real purpose in life. Although for many of us this is quite true, there's another side as well -- one that we don't want to burden our loved ones with. There's the worry that the cancer will come back; that's always the big one. But there's also a loss of identity, some more substantial than others. They can be found in the bodies of many cancer patients, post-treatment, and are related to the subtantial amount of toxins that were put into our bodies during treatment. Very often they leave a calling card behind.
There are athletes who are unable to practise their sports again, muscians who are incapacitated by the shaky hands holding their instruments and other chronic ailments that are caused by radiation. In some instances, lifestyles have to be changed and regular day-to-day life as we once knew it is different.
In other instances, cancer survivors suffer from minor but more common irritants. For example, I am even more clumsy than I used to be, as a result of a loss of eye-hand coodination. I also have some loss of balance and collapsed veins in the arm that my chemotherapy flowed through. I developed a bright red rash following chemotherapy that the doctors attributed to the cancer therapy drugs that I had to take. After multiple visits to dermatologists and speaking to friends that were specialized in other forms of medicine, all the specialists seemed baffled. The only consensus was that I was allergic to something. The rash, which covered most of my body appeared and disappeared at random times and in random places with no pattern. It remained with me for over one year post-treatment. To this day, more than three years later, little bits reappear on some parts of my body, but it's much better than it was before.
Life goes on however, and I am so pleased to be here. I find myself grateful at so many random times during the day. Sometimes it's while I listen to the birds singing early in the morning. At other times it's the joy of playing water ball (a game my girls created) in the pool with my family. The bigger times make it so real; my daughter's birthday, or my eldest daughter's graduation from high school. You always look forward and be thankful in advance for the ones to come.
I think the camaraderie in the conversation I had with my dear friend and fellow cancer survivor was all she really needed. Many times we just need to get things out of our system. Things that only a cancer survivor or those treating them would really understand. Sometimes we just want to gripe and complain about the little irritants that make up our daily lives. It's good to feel like somebody really understands.
And to our dear friends and loved ones, I can say that we really are doing dandy. We just have our moments.