Life after chemo

My last bad chemo was Wednesday (taxotere and carboplatin), and I find myself reflecting and wondering, What does this all mean? Where am I going next? It would be easy to disappear back down the path into “normal” life, but I choose not to.

It’s common for cancer patients to get depressed and disillusioned when their chemotherapy regimen has ended, and it makes sense when you think about it. For the last 18 weeks I’ve had continuous contact with nurses and doctors who monitored my health. In some ways getting chemo is sickly comforting – it’s supposed to be destroying cells that want to destroy my body. And now I’m not getting it anymore. The security net of chemo has been taken away. Now I get to free fall and figure out recovery on my own.

You can see the chemo on my fingernails like growth rings on a tree, except it’s not growth, it’s destruction. If you look closely you can see six ridges on my thumb nails from the six chemo treatments. Interruptions in my cell growth. My anti-growth rings. One by one the ridges will disappear over time as my healthy cells take back my body.

With chemo out of the picture I am getting a glimpse of where I’m headed, but I’m also looking in the rear view mirror. Everything has happened so quickly and I really haven’t had time to grieve the loss of my breast and five months of my life. Chaotic doesn’t even begin to describe how the last five months have been. When I take a hard look, the chaos has been around a lot longer than that; it’s been more like two years. Cancer shoved that chaos over the edge adding in a big dose of terror and mortality.

It feels like I’m going backwards, something I don’t really ever do, but I have to if I’m going to process all of this in a healthy way. I have to back up to my mastectomy and take on those feelings. I have to figure out what this all means for me and where I am going next. Backwards is the new forward.

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Mastectomy scar

I have never felt the intensity of emotions that I had last night when we took my bandage off. I knew the emotions were there and that a flood of tears would pour out, but nothing could possibly prepare me for it because there is no point of reference. The incision feels and looks grotesque to me; it feels horrifying and unreal. But it’s fucking real and makes me want to hide. The sight of myself makes me so woozy that I have to grab the bathroom sink so I don’t collapse. I know my emotions will ebb and flow and change, but the visual right now is too much. Amelia, the person I love more than anything in the universe has to see this thing on me and then shame comes in. I don’t want to be seen like this; I want to be invisible. Just like women are built for pain, we know shame, too, especially body shame. I feel deformed. This is me now.

I have never felt so sad, never had this amount of grief in my entire life. Removing the dressing was the hardest thing I have ever done. I couldn’t actually do it completely; Amelia did. Afterward as we stood in the bathroom, she cradled my head as I sobbed. “My heart is breaking for you,” she said. That is the feeling. It is heartbreak. There are no comforting words anyone could say right now that could make this feel better. Right now I need to feel all of these emotions. They will be persistent and I will not ignore them.

The physical part of healing will not be complicated. I will heal quickly. I will walk, exercise my arm, take ibuprofen when I need to, rest, and keep moving. I’ll just move differently for a while. That’s the easy part. But the feelings of horror, shock, grief, shame, and despair are going to take a long time to go away. I will need to make room for them, understand them, and let them go. It’s going to be a hard road. No, everything is not ok, but everything is temporary.