I expected a renewed sense of purpose. I expected a heart full of joy. I expected to spring out of bed each morning, inhaling the sweet aroma of life…
This is not what I expected.
Bloody toenails. Afro-hair. Fatigue that could sink the Titanic… I’m just getting started.
I want to be crystal clear: All of the whining I’m about to do is flavored with immeasurable amounts of gratitude. I am so lucky to be alive. I fully realize just how fortunate I am. My heart is broken for those who don’t get to bitch afterwards like I’m about to.
I write this for a reason. I believe there is a very unclear picture about what surviving cancer is like because so many of us who live to tell this story keep our mouths shut out of fear of being insensitive or sounding unthankful. But I’m going to tell you how it really is. So if you want a feel-good story about a woman basking in the joys of vitality, flitting through her glorious existence singing Kumbaya and the Hallelujah Chorus, STOP RIGHT HERE.
Because here’s the truth: Life after cancer still sucks.
I feel worse now than I ever did with cancer. I think I’m getting better every day, but I’ve been finished with treatment for two months and I feel like a shell of my former self. Here’s why:
See all those black markings on my chest and neck? Those are radiation markers. In that lovely shape of Africa is where they found the cancer, so that’s where they zapped me (front and back) with their radioactive lasers and cooked me from the inside out. Chemo and radiation kill the cancer, but they can’t distinguish between healthy cells and cancerous ones. So the radiation also attacked all the good stuff under there like my thyroid, my esophagus, and my vocal chords. So, as a consequence of all the healing, I sound like Marge Simpson and I’m putting on mystery weight despite the fact that I can hardly swallow. What fresh hell is this? I may choke to death on cake and I’m still gonna get fat??
**Women everywhere resound in chorus with me** “NOOOOOO!!!”
The voice is frustrating, but not fatal. And, as much as I hate it, the weight gain is just a vanity issue. But the exhaustion is infuriating. I’m done every night by 8pm. I’m not sleepy, mind you. I’m just worn out. So I lie in bed for hours instead of playing with kids, going out, or working on my next awesome novel. It sucks.
Then there’s my lungs. One of the drugs in AVBD (or is it ABVD? I can’t ever keep my acronyms straight), the chemo regimen for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, reigns down hellfire on your lungs. Apparently my small airways aren’t moving enough oxygen into my bloodstream, so I feel mildly suffocated all the time. Which is loads of fun. Thankfully, steroids are helping with that, but as you know, they come with their own set of lovely side-effects! More fat storage for me. Yippee!
And we have to talk about my hair. You all know how much fun I have with my hair. Well… right now I look like Bozo the Suburban Clown. No joke. How did I go from blonde (I think that was my natural-ish color) and straight to Little Richard? This mess is ridiculous. Screech has better hair than I do:
Again, this is pure vanity and I should probably just shut up, but the point it…
I no longer feel like me.
Then there’s my brain to deal with…
Aside from still living under the fog of chemo-brain and having the short-term memory of that blue fish from that Disney movie (what’s her name?), I’ve also gone a bit insane. Cancer PTSD is a very real thing. Living with the fear of recurrence is almost as crippling as the disease itself.
These days, we all fear cancer to some extent. In theory, I’ve always been afraid of it, but it never stopped me from smoking or sitting too close to the television. I mean, it took me 6 months to go to the doctor after I first noticed symptoms I knew could mean cancer!
True story: A month ago I was once again planning my funeral because I thought the cancer was back and I was dying. I literally told my family to prepare for the worst. And what brought on my meltdown? I was feeling the exact way that my doctor warned me I was going feel.
And that’s how it is. Cancer makes you coo-koo-ca-choo.
With every case of the sniffles, every wave of fatigue, every pending test result… I freak-the-eff-out.
A friend of mine had to go for a follow-up PET scan the other day. She asked, “Do you think it ever gets easier?”
I laughed and shook my head. “I can’t go to the dentist without being afraid they’re going to find mouth tumors.”
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe someday the remnants of this horrible disease will be absolutely obliterated from my life. I certainly hope so, but I doubt it.
In the meantime, I’m going to tease up my ‘fro as high as it will go. Because honestly, you can’t be too bitter or sad when you look like this: