This post has been months in the making. It has been rolling around in my brain — in my conscious and subconscious — but I’ve had difficulty converting it to coherent thoughts and words. This is my sixth attempt.
Here are facts I can state. I developed Lymphedema in my left arm. It presented at first with purple skin, and then the arm became slightly swollen. We ruled out a blood clot before determining that it was indeed lymphedema. Treatment involved wrapping the arm in about five layers of cotton, foam, and bandages for three weeks. Now I wear a compression sleeve and gauntlet (covering the wrist, thumb, and palm; but no fingers). I am still supposed to wrap it overnight. We will see how that goes.
I am waiting to find out when and where I will have my next surgery. Being on Medicaid limits my options as far as surgeons go. I may need to travel anywhere from one to six hours to find a doctor who will work with me. I am hoping to qualify for the DIEP FLAP procedure. It is a long and complicated surgery; hence the reluctance of many surgeons to work with Medicaid. Medicaid just doesn’t pay well.
I turn 40 tomorrow.
Those are the facts I can relate. After that, things get swirly and blurred. This cancer-free life is not at all what I expected, and my emotions ebb and flow like a stormy sea. It doesn’t help that tomorrow is an age-related milestone.
The lyrics to this song have been on repeat in my head lately. Some days I feel others’ pain intensely, to the point of tears. But when it comes to me, I flatline. Nothing. No joy or melancholy. No frustration or contentment. Just a big empty space. It’s like I am hollow; that if you really look into my eyes you’ll see resignation, exhaustion, or maybe nothing at all.
Trust me, I know that I am still recovering from the physical trauma of cancer treatment. My energy is building, but it isn’t great — and it may never get better. Side effects, like lymphedema and infertility are realities that will not go away. Other effects, like early menopause are physically and mentally exhausting. But these are realities that I can learn to live with.
What people in the cancer community don’t really talk about, though, is post-cancer depression. Some studies say that as many as 25% of cancer survivors suffer from low mood and/or depression. In fact, some experts compare these weeks, months, even years with grief. Not in the sense that the survivor is mourning the end of cancer treatment; but feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness sometimes flood the brain after hearing the “all-clear.”
For instance, turning 40. On the one hand, I look at what I have accomplished in my 30s. I became a mother (technically I was 29, but it took until I was 30 to really get into a routine). I became a business owner (we’re about to celebrate our 10th anniversary). I grew spiritually, celebrated anniversaries (17 years and counting!), and watched my son navigate his way through the early school years.
On the other hand, I look at the hardships and difficulties from the last 10 years. I had a miscarriage. My Psoriatic Arthritis came back (it went into remission during pregnancy and the first few years of his life) with a vengeance. I had allergic reactions due to medications, and a stay in the Psych ward from a medically-induced manic state. I had three surgeries. A death in the family. I lost my best friend, and I nearly ruined my relationship with my parents.
I GOT CANCER.
Forty is just an age. It’s still closer to one than to a hundred. It’s also even more time for the cancer to return. That’s what think of on bad days. Some days, these lyrics could be about me (not romantically, of course).
The frustrating thing about chemotherapy is the longer-term side effects. The memory impairment. The lack of concentration. These last months, years, or never go away. So it takes an immense amount of energy to focus, to be motivated, to care about things.
I used to love adult coloring to relieve my stress and to make me feel better. Now the thought of starting a page is so overwhelming that I haven’t tried in more than a year. Trying to pick which color pencil to start with is a monumental task.
While I was going through chemo, I took great pride in doing my makeup, choosing my outfit, and making myself as “pretty” as possible. These days, I don’t even want to shower. And I won’t go into the impact cancer — breast cancer — has on one’s self image.
Fortunately, I am quite sick of my wallowing. So I am trying to fake it till I make it. Many days, this has worked. I’ve taken on a new project at work. I try to engage more with my husband and my son. I check in with family and friends.
It’s a work in progress. I am going to talk to the doctor about adjusting my antidepressant. I will try to exercise more. But it is a fight, and sometimes I lose the battle. I’ve learned that I can succumb for a little bit — maybe even a day — because it’s OK to acknowledge the anxiety, worry, and anger, that comes with cancer, or even with our daily lives.
I also realize that allowing myself to feel and explore these negatives emotions needs a time limit, or the hills grow rapidly into mountains I cannot imagine climbing. Recognizing this seems like an accomplishment in itself.
Not much will change tomorrow. I’ll still be a mom and a wife and a business owner. A daughter, a sister, and hopefully a friend. Maybe I will be a little more grateful. A little more compassionate. I’ll listen to my son’s imaginary super heroes with a little more patience. Look at my husband and pay attention to what he is saying; pulling myself away from whatever I was doing. Maybe I will look up from my phone and look at creation with a little more awe and appreciation.
Cancer is life-changing. The key, I think, is to listen to what the experience teaches. To be present. To be loving, compassionate, and kind. To help others when it’s inconvenient for us. To be thankful to God for life and the strong body that helped me fight and beat cancer. To be happy and content with what and who I have in my life.