This October has been different from the last in a thousand ways. I’ve spent the days outside with my kids, the nights inside working, and cleaning or laughing with my friends whenever I get a spare moment. The children are happy, healthy, and pretty well adjusted, after all. The baby is learning to talk. He babbles and repeats our words, with often hilarious results. The preschooler is potty-training (again), and learning that he really can do whatever he sets his mind to. All of us are exploring our world, looking for new opportunities, and fixing what we can.
Last October was very different. Last October, I was bedridden, too weak to walk, arms covered with tracks from the chemotherapy injection needles, and with a real fight on my hands. The tumor had stopped growing (on visual inspection, at least), but it was not receding peacefully. It took my energy. My vigor. My taste for new things — and in fact, my tastebuds altogether. Chemo and cancer had ravaged my body so completely that my oncologist was concerned about starting the new treatment as scheduled.
In the end, she did start the Taxol, but gradually, scheduling weaker doses weekly rather than standard doses every three weeks. That made it possible to move again, but every Thursday became a day to dread, a day that would knock me out for the weekend and make me fight back to life every Monday morning.
I sat at my computer for hours. (It sat at me, rather, as I balanced it at my bedside.) I struggled over the words, the tension, the emotion that would explain my story of cancer to you, the words that would bring my experience into your computer, and into your heart. Reaching out to those with cancer, those with family or friends who might have experienced cancer … and to those who have not yet been even touched by cancer became important to me.
For while I could no longer do so many things, I could still do one thing to contribute to the world. I could tell my story.
And you told my story right along with me, encouraging me at every step. You wrote — and kept writing — about cancer, talking about early detection, joining Team WhyMommy and posting special bits for October’s breast cancer awareness month. I collected links diligently, encouraging you as you encouraged me, and you can still find them all at the top of this and every page on my site.
But this year it all feels different.
This year, I’m supposedly “healed.” I’m “cancer-free” at least as far as we know, and I’m so much better that I’m even taking care of my kids all week alone (last week – check!) and/or working a normal schedule as per my plans. I’m raking leaves. I’m helping others.
But life after cancer is irrevocably different.
This year, the pink ribbons are a reminder of what I went through, and it’s not altogether pleasant. When I see the pink ribbons and pink shirts, and the ads for the Komen walks, I remember what it was like last year. I remember showing up to the walk, overwhelmed. Tired from that week’s chemo treatment. Discouraged.
I did my part. I walked. I cheered. I was the happy little survivor. But inside, I was still tired. Still upset. Still embarrassed to be there — of all places! — without a shred of hair on my body, except a few straggly bits of my eyebrows.
I felt like a freak.
I was so self-conscious that I even refused to show you, my friends, the pictures after the walk, and I stopped venturing out as much as I had before, when it was easier. I went to playgroup, that sanctuary of friendship that never let me down (when no one had colds!), but, other than that and a few visits from close (and healthy!) friends, I lay in my bed and looked at the closet doors. Tired. Fighting. But tired.
And sometimes I feel that way even today, long after the treatment has ended. For although my body is healed, the cancer — and the treatment — left scars behind.
Sometimes I wonder if you can see them.
Can you see the scars, when I’m “out with the girls?” Does the fact that I was recently bald show when you look at my cute cropped hair? Do my clothes fit right, or are they flat where they should be lumpy and lumpy where they should be flat?
When you look at me, do you see the turmoil that still rages within me?
I struggle with the thought that I’ve been through so much this year. I have anger over what I’ve put my family through. I mourn the missing days and weeks and, yes, even months (November, anyone?) that I missed out on last year, sheltered in my room, fighting the invisible and unseen enemy within.
Cancer takes so much from us. It took my breasts. It took my ovaries. It took my lymph nodes and left lymphedema — and disability — in its place. But what I miss the most is my carefree life, my life where my biggest worry was potty-training my toddler, and the rock-solid certainty that I used to whisper to my child as he went to sleep, “Shh, baby. I love you. I will always be here for you.”
I do not wish this on anyone. And so I have a question to ask you before you leave.
Have you done your breast self-exam this month? Was anything different on one side but not the other?
Please, please, take this seriously. Check your breasts tonight, in the shower, or tomorrow when you wake up. If you see or feel anything unusual, call your doctor right away and go see her asap. Please. Do it for Andrea. Do it for Jenni. Do it for the Moms with Cancer. Do it for me. And leave me a comment — I’ll post something special next time if you do.