Learning that I had cancer may be the scariest thing that has ever happened to me.
My first personal encounter with cancer (that I can remember) was the wife of someone my dad worked with when I was about 13. We were invited to a party, she was there with her obviously-bald head wrapped in a colorful silk scarf that hung down like a ponytail. Someone told me, in a whisper: “She has breast cancer.”
I got the strong impression that I should feel very, very sorry for her, and that she was very brave to be at a party when she must be feeling very ill, though she looked as if she was enjoying herself.
Some time later (months? a year?), I was not surprised to hear that she had died.
Because that’s how it was: you got cancer, you died. Probably after a long, agonizing “battle” involving surgeries, chemotherapy, and other horrors.
Whatever we see as children, we tend to assume that’s “how the world is”. Years of experience may never quite override our instinctive assumptions based on the “natural facts” that we learned when young. So, for my generation, a diagnosis of cancer feels like a death sentence – even though we know that much has changed in recent decades. Cancer treatments and survival rates have improved tremendously. As one nurse said to me: “This is not your grandmother’s breast cancer.”
Nonetheless, cancer still feels like “the big one”. The thing that, from a certain age, you do routine tests for, and each time heave a sigh of relief: “Whatever else may be wrong with me, at least I don’t have cancer.”
Well, now I do. It’s almost a letdown. I no longer have to worry about the worst possible thing that could happen to me: it has!
Of course, there’s always a next worst thing. “I have cancer, but as long as I don’t have to have chemo, it won’t be too bad.” Guess what? Chemo starts next week.
So, what’s left? “I have cancer, and I’m about to have chemo, but as long as I don’t end up dying young in long, drawn out, terrible pain…”
Physically, I have no cancer symptoms, nor any reason to have them. I may not even have any cancer left in my body: the tumor was removed intact, and there is no evidence of spread. (So why am I doing chemo? Statistics: to reduce the chance of recurrence.)
Emotionally, this has been a hard ride ever since the biopsy in October. I’d already been through a cycle of suspicious mammogram and biopsy years ago, but this time there was something I could feel. As much as I denied it, to myself and others, this time it seemed much more likely to be cancer. Of course that thought was with me constantly. I was standing on an emotional precipice. Receiving the diagnosis was the push over the edge. I’ve been falling ever since, with occasional moments when I do manage to forget all this and just enjoy my life. Being in Australia for a month helped with that, but cancer takes a lot of forgetting.
If you talk to me about cancer, I will immediately go into in fact-sharing mode. I’ll tell you everything I know, which feels like it’s already quite a lot. But this knowledge has been difficult to acquire. The topic is so frightening that, every time I start reading about it, my brain just wants to run away and hide in a corner. I can only take in so much before I freeze and choke and nearly start crying. I guess this is a common reaction: almost every medical person I’ve dealt with has said: “I know this is a lot for you to absorb right now.” (They have everything printed out, so you can read it again later.)
While I want to understand what’s happening, and keep control over what’s done to me as far as I can, learning about cancer has not helped me much in dealing with the associated emotions. Cancer treatment has improved since I was young, but it’s still bloody awful. And you can’t refuse knowledge about even the uncommon side effects, because you need to watch out for their symptoms, e.g.: “In rare cases, people getting this drug have had their spleen grow very large or even rupture, which can cause death. Let your doctor know right away if you begin to have pain or swelling…”
So, for the moment, I feel emotionally exhausted, while paradoxically physically ok. The latter, of course, is about to change, as the doctors start treating me to within an inch of my life.
For those who have asked what they can do for me – which I very much appreciate! – I can always use more reading material. Suggestions for Kindle books and other miscellaneous items from my Amazon wish list can be seen here. I’ll also very happily take suggestions for free Kindle books that I might not have found for myself yet on Amazon or Project Gutenberg, as well as any other good sources of free ebooks.
Jan 2017: I was given the all-clear by my doctors last June – it seems that I did beat cancer.