My Year of Living Cancerously – Part 2

As I said before, the day before Thanksgiving will be my “cancerversary”. I have had a lot to be thankful for over the years but, obviously, especially this year. I’m alive. I have people who love me and whom I love. I have a roof over my head, food to eat. I’m pretty broke, bald, and tired…and I have Frankenboobs…but, as I learned this year, this is only temporary. Everything is just temporary. Except the Frankenboobs.

And, sure, losing my hair, nails, breast, that all sucks. Being tired and nauseous all the time is not fun (dear God, PLEASE let me be able to puke up this alien that is eating me from the inside out. I was ALWAYS nauseous but hardly ever able to throw up…at least I didn’t have to have someone hold my hair back). Premature mental pause is a drag. The worst side effects for me though were my super smelling powers, the change in my taste buds, and neuropathy in my hands and feet. I could smell perfume, food, cigarette smoke like someone had just shoved it directly up my nose and lodged it in my brain. And everything tasted like salt, even sugary things. Water tasted like rocks smell in the middle of a sweltering summer, like salt, minerals, dirt. The numbness in my hands and feet made it impossible to sleep and made walking painful. All these things are still true, if to a lesser extent than before. Except the neuropathy, that still sucks at ramming speed.

Physical side effects, I think, pale in comparison to the mental ones though. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc…. And the worst was/is the uncertainty. Should I continue to make plans for the future? Should I prepare for the worst? Will I feel good enough tomorrow to go grocery shopping? Will I ever feel like myself again? what if it comes back? Should I wear the damn wig (Other women seem to be able to pull this off. Every wig I tried on looked like a guinea pig on my head. My oncologist told me I had a nice head so I just rocked the baldness)? And inevitably: what am I going to do after this? I will never be the same. I don’t know who I will be, nothing I have done before seems appropriate now…

Getting cancer is terrible but it is also transformative, like being reborn. It is traumatic but it also has the potential to make me better than I was before. You do a lot of waiting as a cancer patient. Waiting for the doctor, waiting for test results, waiting for labs, waiting for your treatment to be done, etc… That is a lot of time to think. And worry. And make promises to yourself that things will change if you make it through this. I did a lot of thinking about how I want my life to be from now on. This past year has kind of been like…limbo? Just kind of waiting around to see what happens. Now that it is almost over, it feels like I am beginning again. I know I am almost a blank slate, my memory is so bad that I barely  recall parts of my life before all of this happened. They seem like something I read about a long time ago. I have trouble with word retrieval, remembering names, I have to write EVERYTHING down. But I think it has also made me more open to things I would not have considered before. Like blogging, sharing my experiences.

It has also been a very lonely experience. I ran away from the east coast to escape, I guess, the person I was. I didn’t think that person had the right attitude to survive this. During chemotherapy, I slept a lot and didn’t really have the energy to go sight-seeing or try to make new friends. It was all I could do to make it to all my appointments. Toward the end, when I started to get more a  little more energy, I was depressed and didn’t really want to meet new people even though it was probably what I needed most. The friend I am staying with was concerned and often suggested activities and places to visit or go hiking. I didn’t do any of it. About a week after chemo ended though, I went to a women’s cancer retreat at a place called Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM.

I don’t know what made me decide to go after refusing to interact with people for so long, probably the prospect of sleeping in an actual bed for a few days. It was the best thing I could have done for myself though. I am SO NOT a group therapy or support group person but I went to group every morning, I walked, I drew, I socialized. I hiked! I met the most amazing women. I made friends. Awesome friends.

I started going to classes and workshops …and survivor’s groups…sigh. But it has been good for me. I have a great group of friends here. The only problem now is…all my friends had/have cancer. I mean, it has been great making new friends who have the same experiences as me. They are wonderful: patient and kind and loving, concerned for my health and emotional well-being (my old friends are too but they aren’t here with me). But I have to go back out into the real world soon. It’s a little (um, a lot) overwhelming, the thought of leaving my insulated little world where people are gentle with me. Of  interviewing for jobs with no hair and weird fingernails and chemo brain. The world has marched on while I was hibernating, I feel a little obsolete.


Aside: If you ever get a chance to visit Ghost Ranch, I highly recommend it. It has a rich history, beautiful scenery, unbelievably amazing staff, and restorative qualities that I have never experienced anywhere else. Go to one of the cancer retreats or just go as a tourist.

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