World Cancer Day and today’s Daily Prompt: Recognize have me thinking about beginning to recognize yourself after cancer, and about recognizing cancer survivors everywhere. This is a post from 2012 which was called the Back Story.
In 2006, I had a busy life: four kids aged 15 to 4, one funny husband, an enormous dog, an old house to fix up, and, I thought, a really good attitude about turning forty. I was confident that this would be the decade in which I would finally mellow out, let things go, and embrace “good enough”. In short, now that I was 40, I would soon become the Zen woman I had always dreamed of being. I was so ready to get started.
So when it was time for the medical milestone of this passage – the first mammogram – I wasn’t a bit worried; in fact, I knew I would do great. After all, there had never been a woman with breast cancer in my family, which I was sure counted for almost everything. Besides that, I exercised, ate well, even had three kids before I was 30. This confidence, mind you, was based mostly on scientific journals such as People, and O Magazine, where I consistently scored well on breast cancer quizzes. My plan was to smugly rock this mammo, squeeze in a few more errands for my son’s 16th birthday, and then pick up my daughter from preschool – all the while evolving, if there was time, along the way.
But after some initial films, and some waiting, then more films, and more waiting, the appointment did seem like it was taking kind of a long time. It was almost time for preschool pickup, and I was pretty sure it was just a formality for them to come back in and give me the all-clear, so I confidently ignored the instructions to not get dressed yet and pulled my sweater back on while I waited. They came back, finally, noting my obvious failure to follow instructions, and explaining that the doctor would like to speak to me in another room. Things were not going at all as I had planned.
And just like that, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, I most unexpectedly became a survivor. I didn’t really know it then and I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me it was happening. I felt more like the anti-survivor, or whatever the opposite of a survivor would be, whatever you were if you felt like you definitely would not survive, you would probably die right there on the table from the unbelievable, heart-pounding shock of it all. And on the off-chance that you survived the next 15 minutes, you certainly could not possibly expect to survive this disease which has been, and which continues to be, the most dreaded by women in all of history.
But survive I did, that day and the excruciating days that followed, not due to any personal fortitude or accomplishment, but only because there didn’t seem to be another option at the time. It would be three days before I got the news for sure, and weeks before I learned that the diagnosis included not only the in situ cancer the radiologist had suspected, but a much more dangerous, invasive tumor within. It would be months before all the treatment decisions were made, and more than a year before they were all finished.
I confess that I did have the hope, early on, that maybe this would be the thing that propelled me into the rarified air of enlightenment. Perhaps if I tried really hard, and did an excellent job at this, I would look back on this time and blithely note that this was the day that I was transformed; I would never again yell at my children or at drivers on the Baltimore Beltway. I would take up pottery and wear Eileen Fisher and breeze through life in a peaceful state of wonder and gratitude. I would never again sweat the small stuff.
The trouble was that the losses were coming so fast, and were so significant, that it was all I could do to keep it together, much less take a pottery class. I lost my breasts, piece by piece at first, then all at once at the end, not before I lost my hair, the veins in my left hand, a lot of weight, tons of sleep, and the good fortune of being the one making the casseroles, instead of the one receiving them. I lost what my sister-in-law called the luxury of careless living, and I deeply envied those who seemed to still have it. My heart raced a lot, I couldn’t seem to ever breathe exactly right, and noticed only after months had gone by that I didn’t sing in the car anymore. I felt so betrayed by my body, and wondered how it could have failed me, and I it, so completely. I worried endlessly about what the future held and if I would survive long enough for my youngest daughter to remember me. I packed away the out-of-season clothes more neatly than usual, and in boxes very clearly labeled, just in case my husband was the one who would have to retrieve them. I had a hard time staying positive. I had a hard time staying vertical. I did not do a particularly good job.
It took a year to heal my body and another year to heal my soul. But eventually, after a lot of time, and a lot of work, I started to feel like myself again. I started to recognize the girl in the mirror again as my hair grew slowly back. Everybody had another birthday, the seasons kept coming, and I paused with a prayer of gratitude as I unpacked the clearly labeled clothes the next year.
Survivorship is not always pink and pretty and positive – in fact, it is most often not any of those things. It gets better, but it takes time. You feel like you can barely breathe for a long time and then one day you notice that you’ve been doing fine. You have bad days, sometimes out of the clear blue sky, but they arrive less often, and take you down a little bit less than before. Eventually you find that while you will never be exactly the same again, you have also not had a personality transplant. You may have not become a Zen woman, but you can, in time, still sing in the car. You start to see flickers of your old self in the new normal. Foibles and all, you are glad to have her back.