Cancer’s Mental Nadir

The other day I wistfully read AAA’s San Diego Westways from cover to cover. Though the rag offers some alluring suggestions for those about to pack their cars, I don’t normally need it to plan my summer. I’m usually on the road by now, headed to my second life on the Oregon Coast. Yet I willingly entered someone else’s summer, because imagination will have to do this season. My own summer will be about cancer treatment.

I’m afraid my imagination has also transported me back to my 30-something self, a woman who never pondered death or, for that matter, how aging would begin to change things. She was in her prime, enjoying the beautiful city of Seattle, seat of many adventures. I don’t usually wallow in nostalgia, wishing I was some other version of myself. Mainly, I’ve cherished the phases of my life, the different challenges I’ve worked through as I’ve gotten older. I like facing the unknown when a new chapter commences and rejuvenates my curiosity. Yet a longing to go back in time surfaced in me acutely one morning. I wanted to step into that 30-year-old’s blissfully unaware shoes.

It’s become harder to remember my normal life. Pleasant fantasies are one thing, but veering into psychological moments that bleed into the dark is a hazard chemotherapy patients need to negotiate. We’ve all heard people natter on about how antiquated chemotherapy seems, particularly in the face of modern medical wonders. As a cancer patient undergoing this adjuvant therapy, I’ve already reached an emotional nadir—I’ve found this course of treatment absolutely ridiculous, and I’ve truly wanted to quit. However, after going over the details of my personal situation with my doctors, and conducting some research on my own, I’ve become convinced I am not enduring this therapy in vain.

Early on I saw I would need to fight for emotional well-being during my treatments, particularly chemotherapy. My first round of chemo was the toughest from a mental standpoint. Physical discomfort brought on psychological discomfort. I received that infusion still in shock over the fact that I was dealing with cancer at all. It was only when I figured out the hardest days would eventually shift into days somewhat easier to manage, that I could begin to accept what was ahead of me.

Even so, my emotions have been riding closer to the surface ever since it was first suggested I might have breast cancer, over four months ago. I am still surprised when I feel them prod, reminding me of what I am going through. The other night I found myself crying while I was watching How to Make an American Quilt, a movie I’d seen years ago sans one tear. I didn’t see this as a bad thing necessarily—catharsis is healthy. It just wasn’t like me, and this, of course, made me speculate, “What’s happening to me?” Sometimes I wonder if wellness will ever return, if the clouds will lift.

This sort of gloom demands some conscious work. I try to remember the despair will eventually shift. If a dark mood doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, nudging one’s willpower is of the essence, even if it seems to be cowering. There are activities and exercises that can move the clouds. Getting started is the hardest part. I’ve forced myself to take a walk when I’ve wanted to do nothing. I’ve sat in mediation. I’ve met a friend for a matinee when I didn’t know if I’d feel like staying for the entire show. Indeed, I’ve discovered it is important to schedule regular outings, even if these activities feel abbreviated and not as satisfying as usual. I guess I’ve come to see cancer as a set of tests, physical and mental. The body learns how to deal with chemicals dripping into a vein for a period of more than three hours at a time. The mind discovers places of new resilience.

That said, there are days when all I can do is endure the fact that it doesn’t feel good. There are times when I just listen to the birds. When I do find myself experiencing a little more well-being in the face of chemical abnormality, I try to savor these bites of life. Not to draw to heavily from How to Make an American Quilt, but I’ve been stringing these moments together, constructing a net that will shore up this trial. When things do go back to normal, maybe I’ll discover some uncommon gratitude.