Last month, I celebrated my one year cancerversary. That is, it’s been one year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I say celebrate, but did I in fact ‘celebrate?’ I didn’t throw a party. I didn’t go out for a special dinner. I didn’t even discuss this anniversary with anyone. Perhaps ‘celebrate’ is not the right word. What is the right word?
There is an element of celebration, but it’s tempered. Reserved. Cautious. I celebrate that I am alive and well. I celebrate that I am able to enjoy each day that has been gifted to me. But celebrating an anniversary implies that you are glad the thing you are celebrating happened. No, I’m not glad cancer happened. But I am glad I’ve made it this far since it happened. “This far.” There it is. That’s the phrase that describes what I did on my cancerversary: I counted. I tracked time.
Year one. No evidence of disease. Sigh.
The counting is what that tempers my celebration. I am alive and well, but how long will things remain that way? Maybe next year will be different. Maybe as time drives a wedge between my diagnosis and the present, I’ll be more inclined to let loose and fully celebrate a cancerversary. For now, I just seem to be reliving the days that followed the diagnosis. I often find myself wondering, “What was I doing at this time last year?”
This Time Last Year
I was embarking on the worst part of my cancer treatment: chemotherapy. I didn’t know it at the time, but chemo would eventually take its toll on me.
I’m still not sure if it is naïveté, a form of denial, or my way of dealing with things that are out of my control, but I often believe I am capable of anything. I approach situations with confidence — 100% sure that I will succeed. Chemo was no different. I signed off on a consent form listing all of the potential side effects, but I foolishly believed that I would pull through unaffected by any of them. Not only did I believe I could make it through chemo (which I did), but I believed I would make it through chemo feeling fine (which I did not).
Why would I believe that? Chemo has been shown to ravage bodies. Why would I think that I am any different? Because I was young? Because I was healthy? Because I looked okay? I had cut my hair short, bought new earrings and began wearing a little bit of makeup in an effort to preserve control. If I looked okay, I thought, then maybe everything would be okay.
If I didn’t look sick, then perhaps I wouldn’t be sick.
I was so proud of myself when people told me how well I looked. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “I am getting through chemo just fine.” And everything was fine — until the third treatment.
By the third dose of chemo, my hair had already fallen out and I donned warm hats and head scarves. I had coped with the hair loss fairly well. I knew it would grow back. Other than that, the extent of the chemo’s side effects involved a darkened vein on my wrist, lack of desire to do anything in the week following treatment, fatigue, and some diarrhea. I also experienced neutropenia, a critically low white blood cell count, after each treatment. We countered this with a shot of Neulasta the day after treatment to increase those counts. The shot would send my bone marrow into overdrive, and a few days later my white blood cell count would skyrocket.
On December 23, two days before Christmas, I had my third chemo treatment followed by the usual Neulasta shot. Four days later, I fell seriously ill. I remember that it was a Friday because that is the day we visit my father-in-law and have dinner at his house. We’ve been doing this since my older son was born seven years ago, and it is something I look forward to each week.
I felt fine when we got there, but at some point during the visit I became feverish and cold. When we got home that evening, I took my temperature. It was 102 degrees Fahrenheit. I was scared because my oncologist had warned me that an infection could turn serious due to my compromised immune system. I became light headed, so I sat on the bathroom floor and called my husband. He didn’t arrive on time.
When he made it to me, I had already collapsed. Although I had enough sense to sit down and and lean against the wall, I didn’t corner myself. When I lost consciousness, I slumped to the side and my forehead hit the floor. I’m not sure how long I was out, but when I regained consciousness, a large knot was already forming where my head had met the floor. My skin was clammy and cold. I felt weak.
We knew I had to go to the emergency room, but what would we do with the kids? Luckily, one of my sisters who lives nearby was home. She came over to stay with them. She would later confess to me that this was the first time she feared for me. This was the first time I had looked sick.
If you look sick, you must be sick.
And I was. It finally dawned on me that I was sick. Vulnerable. Not the strong person I was accustomed to. At least not physically.
That third chemo treatment was the one that took me out. I was hospitalized for two days. My oncologist was out of town for the holidays, so another one from the same practice came to see me. I really wanted to go home, so she plead my case with the hospital’s attending doctor who grudgingly released me on Sunday night. The hospital doctor was adamant that I had an infection because my white blood cell count was elevated. We told him about the Neulasta shot. Of course my white blood cell count would be elevated. That’s what the shot is for. He still suspected an infection but released me without knowing the exact cause of the fever.
I don’t know why I became ill that night, but things didn’t get any better. A few days later I began experiencing peripheral neuropathy. On New Year’s Eve, my feet felt like they were on fire. They were red and tingled painfully. I couldn’t walk. I wrapped them in cold towels, yearning for some relief. As the West coast counted down the seconds until 2014, I cried in pain. A few weeks later, my hands also became affected. They were red, peeling, and pools of blood and fluid collected under my fingernails.
My gastrointestinal issues also worsened after the third chemo dose. I had already been suffering from diarrhea but it became so severe that at some point, I wanted to shoot my butt hole off. It hurt. It bled. I cringed at the thought of wiping. I didn’t experience any nausea or vomiting, but I did lose my appetite and love for food. My mouth felt like it had been scraped raw after each chemo treatment. Nothing tasted the way it used to. Not even water. Eating became a matter of nourishing my body so I could carry on with treatment.
Now, add hot flashes to the mix. Shortly after the third treatment, chemo began affecting my ovaries. I would wake up at night drenched in sweat, and then it was impossible to go back to sleep. This is when I began missing days at work. Unable to sleep at night, I sometimes needed to rest during the day.
I dreaded treatments four, five and six. Those were the slowest nine weeks of my life. I didn’t even look forward to the last treatment because I knew I would have to deal with the aftermath. I remember people telling me, “You only have one treatment left,” and I wondered how that was supposed to make me feel better. The thought of one more treatment was dreadful even if it was the final one. I don’t know what it was about the third dose of chemo, but it seemed like somebody flipped a switch. My body succumbed. I had been getting through chemo just fine, and then I was sick.
Why was it so difficult for me to acknowledge that I was sick at this time last year? I think it’s because at first I wasn’t sick.
I was diagnosed with cancer at an early stage. This is ideal. This is the scenario you want to be in if you must have cancer. The challenge is that when you are diagnosed, you are probably a healthy individual. The cancer has not affected your well-being, and your body functions as it should. If you treat your cancer with chemo, you become sick abruptly. There is no progression. No easing you into a world of illness. The sickness doesn’t happen unexpectedly or without warning. In fact, they tell you exactly what to expect from chemo. But if you’ve been healthy your entire life, where your worst account of an illness is the flu, then you have no concept of what it means to feel sick. In this case, chemo takes you by surprise.
I celebrate that I am alive and well. I celebrate that I am able to enjoy each day that has been gifted to me. I celebrate that it is not this time last year.