Recovery is like a game of psychological warfare.
Physically, I’m doing very well. I’m in some discomfort, but when I stay on top of it, the Percocet really does take the edge off.
But emotionally — it’s hard. My mind goes places it shouldn’t. I think about how I have CANCER, and I don’t even know for sure that this elaborate surgery, this carving me up and putting me back together, has gotten rid of the cancer. Even if the pathology comes back clean, how will I ever know for sure that the cancer isn’t still there?
I chose the most aggressive treatment, I have opted to do everything possible to rid my body of this disease, but what I know from experience, from watching family and friends fight their own battles, is that it does come back. It moves into the bones and the lungs and the brain and it comes back. Maybe a year from now, or 5, or even 10 years from now. It comes back.
Doctors talk a lot about statistics. About survival rates and how so many women are outliving this diagnosis. But I wonder what those statistics look like when it comes to secondary cancers. I can’t torture myself. I don’t want to know. It’s enough to know that those mutant cells are freaking genius — they find a new place to rest, to rebuild, to make a stand. And the cancer comes back.
The language surrounding cancer is that of war. Be strong. Be brave. Fight. We are warriors. We do battle with modern medicine and a positive attitude. We follow the wisdom of the tribe and give up sugar and processed foods. We exercise. But if the cancer comes back does that mean we didn’t try hard enough? That we didn’t believe in our power to beat this? Is it our fault?
That’s the problem with the metaphors. The mindset that speaks to “beating” cancer. The truth is, we can do everything right and it can still come back. All it takes is a single rogue cell.
I read recently that most invasive ductal carcinomas are in the body for up to 8 years before they can be seen on an MRI or a mammogram. Eight years. I think about how this cancer staked its claim on me, how it could have been there all along and I didn’t know it. I did what I was supposed to. I had yearly mammograms and sonograms. All my screenings were up to date, I never lapsed. I have had yearly physicals and blood tests. I did my job. But I got cancer anyway. Maybe I’m not a good enough warrior. Maybe I ate too many Lean Cuisines and snacked on too many Oreos. Maybe I fucked up.
There is a part of me that needs to believe this is random. That it isn’t my fault. That I am a warrior strong enough and brave enough to beat this. But there are those metaphors again. The ones that are supposed to inspire us and get us all fired up to wage war on our bodies.
How I envy those people who are capable of simply giving it up to God: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. My emotional well-being is all over the place. I go from feeling strong and hopeful to defeated and weak in the blink of an eye. I need to write out the ugly. Put my fears on the page. Not to solicit advice or encouragement, but to banish them from the dark recesses of my mind. It’s like turning on a light in the attic. You only see ghosts in the dark.
And then I feel guilty. I’m not grateful enough. Others have it far worse. I am here, I am alive, I am healing and I have no right to complain, no right to turn the light on the ghosts and the demons that haunt me because I am alive. And the only correct response to being here is one of gratitude.
I need permission to stop being brave or strong or a warrior every minute of every day. I need to know it’s okay to be weak. That it’s okay to feel my loss. But I don’t know how to do that without feeling guilty for feeling bad. When I waver, I feel like I’m taking everyone else down with me, that I’m not doing my part to keep my team battle ready. No one wants to fight for the girl who isn’t willing to lead the charge.
I don’t know what the answer is. I guess some days will be better or worse than others. I need to live within the uncertainty, find my place on the line separating loss and hope.
I can’t be a brave cancer fighter every day, and that’s just going to have to be okay.