They said it would be like this

I haven’t written a post in a month. I’m not sure why.

I think I just got sick of cancer, sick of thinking about it, sick of living it, sick of talking and writing about it. The more clinical term for this would probably be depression.

Every other breast cancer survivor I know says to expect to feel low when the worst of the “active” treatment is over. I’m not really finished with “active” treatment, since I’ll be getting Herceptin infusions through the fall. But since Herceptin has only a few side effects, it’s true that the worst of the treatment is behind me: the chemo, the surgeries, the radiation.

The last radiation dose comes June 7. I ring the cable car bell they have in the hall of the radiation oncology treatment wing, a very appropriate tradition for a San Francisco hospital. Dr. Fowble, my radiation oncologist smiles. The techs who were so unfailingly nice every morning for six weeks of radiation zaps give me a graduation certificate. The certificate is a little silly. Maybe it’s the result of some administrator’s brainstorm? One of the techs says that some patients get angry and rip up the certificate. I can understand that reaction. I mean, do you ever really “graduate” from cancer? Still, it’s meant as a nice gesture, so I try to take it that way.

Still, despite all these traditions to mark a milestone, I feel strangely un-joyful. When I finished chemotherapy, I felt elated even though I knew I was going to be sick for at least a week, even though I knew I still had another surgery and radiation ahead. After radiation, I feel nothing. I feel like I have nothing to say, which isn’t like me at all.

Mostly, I guess I’m just exhausted. I’m unbelievably tired for two weeks after the last radiation dose. I get shooting pains in my left breast. I have trouble sleeping, odd pains in my joints. I peel in places that I guess only nude bathers peel. Word to the uninitiated: When your nipple peels, the skin comes off in strange, crescent moon shapes. I guess all this is worth noting, but I find myself becoming bored with yet another group of side effects and symptoms. I keep telling myself that I’m going research exactly what sunburn is, and how radiation burns differ. (The docs tell me that the redness from radiation isn’t officially sunburn, but “dermatitis.”) I still haven’t gotten around to figuring out the difference.

Most difficult of all, I begin to enter ordinary time. For about a year, I’ve been gripped by this life-and-death battle. Everything has been in sharper focus. It has seemed more important. It reminds me of my brief foray into parachute jumping (10 jumps at age 18, until my mother found out). When you’re folding your own parachute, each crease seems incredibly important. If you don’t do it correctly, you risk death. That is unbelievably thrilling when it’s voluntary, not so much when a biopsy sucks you into another life-and-death context.

Now, as treatment slows down, I have to figure out what the heck to do with the rest of my life. I have to figure out what gainful employment means to a freelance print journalist in a time of media convergence and confusion. I have to figure out how to integrate the experience of the last year with the rest of my life. I have to again work out the balance between work time and family time, kid time and husband time and “me” time.

People cut you a lot of slack when you hold what my family’s been calling the “cancer card.” My kid’s been telling me for months that the cancer card doesn’t get me out of doing things like busing my own dishes, or getting off my bottom to walk the dog. Now, she’s really right.

And, because cancer will always be there in the background, I have to learn how to be “me” again, how to stop worrying about cancer every minute, while not forgetting about it either.

Part of that process is picking up this blog again, and moving, as they say in Chinese, “yi bu, yi bu.” One step, one step.

It sounds easier than it is.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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2 Responses to They said it would be like this

  1. Stacy says:

    Hi Heather, thanks so much for all your words of wisdom. I’m starting chemo on the 7th with the DigniCap. I’m nervous, and anxious and just want this all over with so I can go back to my wonderful life. I see light at the end of the tunnel and that is there because of woman like you

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