Versions of myself

I normally thrive when I’m in a perpetual state of movement. But cancer forced me to stop moving, and change still happened. That is something I need to remember: change doesn’t require movement; some of the most important growth comes from stillness. I’ve blasted through so many different versions of myself these past eight months it’s hard to keep track of. Life has whirled by with such intensity that I haven’t had a chance to get to know each of these separate incarnations of myself.

Pre-cancer Leah is just a speck in the rearview mirror at this point, and I’m not sure how much I relate to her anymore. Who was I?

Diagnosis Leah wanted to run and never come back. I was full of anxiety and fear of the words ‘invasive cancer.’ Those feelings were foreign and confusing to me at the time. I am beginning to understand and accept them more now.

Mastectomy Leah was overflowing with an intensity of pain and grief that I have never experienced before. There will be a lifetime of feelings and learning in the aftermath for me and I will embrace every second of it.

Chemo Leah got the shit kicked out of her every three weeks for 18 weeks. Just when I started to feel better, chemo climbed back into the ring to knock me out again. I can fight a lot of things off, but I am no match for chemo. It’s something I hope I never have to go through again. There really are no words to describe how bad chemo is.

Radiation Leah thought all the hard stuff was over. Wrong! So many feelings popped up while lying on that table ten minutes a day for six weeks. Cancer was here, in the room with me day in, day out. And questions kept popping up. Will I ever feel normal again? What is normal? Is the cancer gone?  Will I lose my right breast? How much radiation is really hitting my heart?

Now here I am: Recovery Leah. I feel like I’ve lived an entire lifetime the past eight months, someone else’s life. But it’s mine. Who is Recovery Leah? I’m still figuring that one out and I will be for the rest of my life.

 

 

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How do you think I feel?

I hate this. I hate radiation. Every day, five days a week, I lay on a table for fifteen minutes and think about having cancer. And every day, I’m flooded with emotions. I am sad. 

How do I know this is going to keep the cancer from coming back? How do I know that it’s not already in my liver? In my brain? In my lymph nodes? As long as I have to have daily radiation, I’m reminded of all of my fears. 

We opened our new business this week, a restaurant and bakery. So many people are coming in. I don’t know all of them, but they know me, and they know I am being treated for cancer. They know Amelia and I because we owned a bar until recently, and many of them have also been following my blog. My hair is growing back a little, but it’s still obvious that I had chemo. I feel exposed. 

All of the above was written by Amelia. I wanted to know what she thought I was feeling so she wrote it from my perspective. She knows me well enough to be able to write as me. Almost.

I don’t hate radiation, but hate is a word I carelessly use. At my core I just don’t believe in hate.

Radiation sucks. I don’t like it, and yes I think about cancer while I lie on that table listening to some sappy soft rock song piped in. Today it was Time After Time, Tuesday it was Just Breathe, Monday it was Landslide.  -sigh-

Cancer has brought out the sadness in me. I have known sadness too well in my life. Right now, cancer is about loss: body part, hair, any sense of control. Loss, left unchecked, can sometimes turn into sadness, but not always. (I lost my credit card the other day – I was not sad. Pissed off? Yes.)

Yes, I think about cancer recurrence. Aches and pains have a whole new meaning to me now. My neck hurts. Is it in my lymph nodes? My ribs are sore. Is it in my bones? I see a bright spot in my vision. Is it in my brain? Then I forget about it, because we’re busy starting a new business.

There’s yet another level of feelings about cancer when you’re opening a restaurant. We are already fairly well-known in our community, and I’ve been very public about cancer. There are a lot of people that I don’t know who are genuinely concerned about my well-being, asking questions – just being really real and it hits me hard sometimes. I found myself in the restaurant kitchen with tears in my eyes a few times this week. The caring was too much. It shined a light on me that I am not quite ready for.

I feel like I was partially erased during the past seven months. I disappeared from the public view, and now I’m back. And it’s different. I’m different. This is what starting over feels like.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been nuked

Every road I go down in the cancer journey seems to lead to increased vulnerability. I sit in rooms half-naked and get poked, prodded, weighed, and measured by dozens of strangers. There is a blind reliance on strangers that didn’t exist six months ago that I will never get used to. At some point in each appointment I have to disconnect. There is only so much information I can absorb in one sitting. Thankfully Amelia is at these appointments to pick up my slack.

Radiation has brought up a lot of emotions that I did not expect. I feel uneasy, exposed, and overwhelmed. Just when I think I’ve got my emotions around cancer cataloged and organized into tidy little volumes, some brand new situation surfaces and feelings bubbles up. I simply refuse to ignore my feelings. It does no good for me, and it certainly doesn’t make anything go away. I’d rather ride out the emotions that come with the territory, there’s far more for me to learn on that path than one of of blissful ignorance.

Radiation is some serious shit. A physicist is now part of my treatment team. Beams of radiation blast my chest wall, collar bone, and lymph nodes, annihilating any rogue cancer cells that happen to be hanging around. The mission of radiation is destruction and/or interruption of fast growing cells. I will most likely have a skin reaction. It may look like a burn, but it will not technically be a burn. With burns, damage occurs from the top down through the skin layers. Heat burns more layers with each degree and eventually blisters. Radiation works differently. It damages skin from the bottom up: damaged basal cells (cells below your skin layers) move upwards to the surface of the skin and ulcerate. It is not a burn, and does not act or heal like a burn even though it looks like one. But it all sounds a little creepy if you ask me.

For the next six weeks every week day I will lay topless, hands over my head, taking deep breaths and holding them three separate times for 45 seconds while I receive radiation doses. I take a deep breath to pull my heart away from the radiation beam as much as possible. This treatment will have a whole new healing process that can take two years to recover from physically. The radiation oncologist said two to three years, but I’ll take two, thank you very much.

Deal with it

One Valentine’s Day I framed a quote that Amelia and I love: Maybe everything is already ok. It’s a good one, and true most of the time, but it’s work. It’s not putting your head in the sand or plugging your ears. It’s meeting things head on, acknowledging them, understanding them, and moving on.

Acknowledging the past is an important part of healing from any kind of trauma. I’m not one to put on a happy face on and skip through life with one breast exclaiming, “Everything is great!” No. Now that chemo is behind me I will dig deep into my feelings about losing a body part, an amputation.

When I look back at other traumatizing things that have happened in my life (and there have been a lot – I could write another dozen blogs), I am grateful. I wouldn’t be where I am in this world without these traumas because I chose to grow through them and in spite of them. I will grow through cancer and my mastectomy as well, but not without some work. Not dealing with the emotions of my mastectomy is like emotional suicide. If I ignore it, it doesn’t go away.

All these questions and feelings have started popping up about walking around with one breast:  Am I really going to march around in a tank top publicly when it gets warm? What do I wear when I swim? Who the hell cares? How do I support the left one? I need to design my own uni-boob bra! I’d say about 80% of me doesn’t give a hoot about how I look publicly; I’m just glad to be alive. But 20% of me is insecure and full of shame and way too concerned about what others see.

There are options, I’m just not interested in them. Like “foobs,” that is, fake boobs, the inserts you put into your bra. Or reconstruction, which I opted to not do. These are very personal choices and there are no right answers. Dealing with what I now have works best for me, learning to accept my body in its most natural state, even though there is less of it now. Maybe everything is already ok.

 

 

I don’t do Resolutions

Amount of New Years resolutions I’ve ever made: zero. It’s not my thing, never has been. I’m hard to keep up with (ask Amelia). I am constantly moving. I see possibility and go after it, think something and do it, dream something and make it happen. I am a walking resolution. I resolve to get shit done all the time, cancer or not, depression or not, financial instability or not.

Because I’m constantly changing, I am often a ball of contradictions. I love change; it’s a constant, and it’s happening right now. How I feel and think today could change tomorrow because if I’m rigid I am not open to possibility.

With cancer there is no room for rigidity. You are forced to go with the cancer flow. Monday I worked my butt off for eight hours installing heat ducts, patching a floor and removing a tub; tomorrow I may cry half the day (while working).

Crying is a pain in the ass. It gets in the way of work for me. It makes me stop and feel something I’d rather not feel. It’s as inconvenient as cancer. I was not much of a cryer before cancer, but now I cry more frequently, though unpredictably. Yesterday I was working on heat ducts in the basement and I found myself crouched down with my head in my hands, weeping. One of those I have cancer, when is this going to stop moments.

The alternative to crying is anger with a side of resentment, and nothing good comes out of either of those things.

Lesson of the week: crying is good. If I did have a 2016 resolution, it would be to feel more ok about a good cry.