To start, I really dislike the word journey. However, it is a word, which works. I have tried other words, like the cancer experience, the cancer bus , the cancer ride, and the crap that you go through with a cancer diagnosis. In the end, journey works because it is easy and pretty much sums it up.
Personally, I feel that there are four parts to the whole deal. Waiting. First, there is the part where you think something is wrong. This can be the stage where you have found a lump, but not sure what to do. When I found my lump, I waited a full cycle to see if it went away on its own – it did not. It can also be the waiting and worrying aspect of thinking there is something wrong. This sometimes happens after a test and shortly thereafter, you receive a call back for further tests, like an ultrasound or a biopsy. This is the waiting stage. The waiting stage is sometimes quick, and sometimes not so quick. Regardless, this stage seems like it is takes months or even years. The waiting stage leads to more stages that are far more overwhelming.
Diagnosis. You have cancer, now the fun begins. The worrying about what might be wrong becomes the horror of something very wrong. For many, it is not expected and for some the possibility was there, but now it is real. There is a cell that is growing faster and bigger than the other healthy cells in your body. This cell, likes to travel and cause havoc elsewhere if not removed, contained or destroyed. If not removed, contained or destroyed the reality is it might destroy you. The shock of diagnosis is probably something that one does not forget. Personally, I remember the date, where I was, how I felt, and what I did after. I was at work, I made them tell me over the phone, I turned my chair around and stared at the wall for a while. It was painted eggshell blue. I called my husband, left work and drove straight to my mom’s apartment.
Treatment. This can take many forms. It can be a surgery to remove the malignant cells. It may turn into chemotherapy based on the pathology report, the size of the tumour or a number of other protocols that dictate chemotherapy as part of the course. Radiation is another therapy that zaps the area suspected of harbouring these unwanted cells. It can be all of the above. Treatment beats you up, spits you out, and then takes a few more punches at you. At least you know where you stand. The information and incredible amount of appointments defines you, you are a patient. You are a cancer patient. It is a necessary part of the diagnosis. The appointments are scheduled; blood work prior to chemo. If the blood work is satisfactory, then chemo proceeds. After chemo, there may be some nausea, exhaustion, you feel crappy and then it gets better just in time for the next round of chemotherapy. A person is able to schedule which days they will feel horrible and when they will feel better. When they are staying in bed and when they can venture out. The feelings of treatment are overwhelming. The patient counts down rounds of chemo, radiation blasts, and doctor appointments. The wait for it to be over is exciting. The end is in sight and that is something to look forward to.
Recovery. The scare of the diagnosis has surpassed, the ravages of treatment are lessening and the number of doctor appointments decreases. Soon, the patient is discharged as a cancer patient. If there is an issue, call your GP. It is such a relief this chapter is complete. For the past months, your life has been dictated by cancer. It is over, now what? Recovery, one would think, is to be celebrated. You have survived a traumatic diagnosis. You have come out successfully against a disease that is a known killer with no cure. The party afterwards should be something similar in greatness as New Year’s Eve in New York! Now the healing begins and life continues. Everything gets back to normal. If you lost your hair due to treatment, it starts to grow back. Scars heal and the exhaustion begins to dissipate. You begin to look better and feel better. Therefore, you must be better. Personally, I think recovery is the most challenging part of having cancer. It is also the longest part of the “journey”. For some they get over, move on and it becomes a distant memory. A hurdle. For others, like myself, the uncertainty continues. Of course, the fact that I opened The Unexpected Gift and have submerged myself in the constant discussion regarding cancer may be a part of it. I think it is therapy.
Over the past year, I have talked to many women who have been on the cancer bus. I am going to take a leap here, but I think many feel recovery is hard. Hard to go through because you are “clear”. You have been “cured”. A person hits their five year mark (with breast cancer), and they have come out of the darkness and all is well. I call bullshit and I would use the steaming pile of poop emoji here if I could. I personally know many women who have a recurrence at 10 years, 12 years or even 20 years. Either the same breast, the opposite breast or another primary cancer or metastatic cancer.
For me, recovery continues. Emotionally mostly. I am so grateful for my life and my family. But, the what if’s sometimes win. I have a pain somewhere new, or I am constipated and for sure it is colon cancer. I check my breasts every day, use a deodorant I apply with my fingers so I can monitor if there are any lumps in my arm pits. Recently, I have been blessed with Lymphedema. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving. These are the thoughts that drift through my head every once in a while. Mostly, I can keep them at bay. I have moved on with my life, but part of my life is cancer. I am much better now, not so crazy. “Don’t eat that red jujube, it will kill you”, those days have subsided . That craziness impacted my kids. When they drink a diet drink they tease me – “Mom is this going to give me cancer, Mom is this a can of cancer”, said in a teasingly sarcastic voice. Recovery, it goes on for a long time.
You are not alone and not crazy. It gets better. Use the resources at CancerCare, support groups,social workers, art therapy and so many more programs. Be well and take care of yourself.