Break Between Cancer Treatments

A lot of people blog about the writing life. That was my intention when I first put up this site, which was actually designed to promote my work. Like everyone else, I thought I’d share my thoughts about writing as I finished pieces and ultimately sent them out. It wasn’t long before I broadened this aspiration to include any topic, not just writing. Push-button publishing provided a reason to come up with polished pieces—to see how far I could take short essays without turning to an editor. I quickly learned blogging is also a great way to work on facing one’s goofs and imperfections!

My most recent posts focus on cancer and recovery—I’ve been housebound for four months. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I hoped I might take advantage of my convalescence and get some writing done. That possibility quickly eluded me. After I learned I had a few positive lymph nodes, I experienced a fair amount of fear over what was coming. Chemo treatments brought on foggy thinking and genuine discomfort. The best I could do was stick to my goal of one blog post per month. I also chipped away at a poem about what else… breast cancer. It’s a long poem.

I had my last chemo infusion a few weeks ago—radiation is next. It will be roughly three more months before my life returns to normal (knock on wood). I’ve been doing everything I can to improve my chances of living cancer free for a long while. Aside from following my doctor’s orders, I take walks, eat well, and stay connected with people. Yet I’m getting cabin fever. It didn’t help that chemotherapy slowly brought on an aversion to my own home. I began associating my couch and environs with the chemicals running through my veins in a way that made me blame this living space, albeit irrationally, for what I was going through. I was willing to head almost anywhere—to get away from here. Fortunately, I’m coming out of the chemo cave. Chemo brain has already faded. Even better, I don’t have to be back at Moores Cancer Center for a few weeks. They’re giving me a breather.

I’ve just begun to feel well enough to revise an old novel manuscript. I’d actually planned to work on the project during the spring, but it was waylaid by this health drama. When I finally did pull the manuscript out, I wasn’t sure if I would connect with it. Yet I found myself digging right in, occasionally going into the zone. As the hours passed, I experienced some much need optimism. I began to muse, “Maybe I won’t lose anything.

I probably couldn’t have started a new novel during this time. I believe I have forward flow on the old one, because a lot of the work has been done. The scaffolding is in place, and that allows me to focus on style, plot, character development—new ideas. I don’t have to fight a story that’s not coming. I can play with this one to my heart’s content. So far, a sense of accomplishment has punctuated each writing session. That doesn’t always happen, believe me.

I hope to have the stamina to keep up this pace as I deal with radiation. Even if I don’t, I expect my newfound momentum will hold up during the impending break between treatments. It doesn’t matter how well I’m actually doing with the revision process. I’ve needed to feel passion for something in the middle of this upheaval, because chemotherapy dulls just about everything. Indeed, I’ve been yearning for a taste of what I was like before I barreled into this ordeal.

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.

Facing the Cancer Marathon

I was first exposed to cancer’s terrible reach when I saw the film, Brian’s Song, a story focused on the fate of football player, Brian Piccolo—he died of testicular cancer. The movie came out in 1971, though I’m not sure when I actually saw it. It could have been a year later (I would have been ten). I still remember the shock of this drama hitting my tender child’s mind. It seemed like an exotic tragedy back then, one that only happened in the movies. Any revelation that someone around us had cancer was viewed as sobering. It was rare. Usually, the person was not expected to live.

Now I have cancer, and most people believe I will survive. I probably will. Since my suspicious mass was first discovered 7 weeks ago, I’ve been told numerous cancer stories—stories about how people existing within 6 degrees of separation have gotten through their trials and are now thriving. The cancer drama is no longer exotic. It is no longer rare. It has almost become a rite of passage.

It’s still cancer.

It is easy to look at the numbers, not to mention the possibility of medical treatment as fine as a brand new Cadillac, and shrug. So and so just worked through that. I, myself, have had this reaction more than once. Given the current cancer statistics, I think it’s a fair one. Unfortunately, cancer’s ubiquitous nature does not prepare the patient for the magnitude of the marathon she may be facing. It’s still cancer. And it’s still hard.

This is not to imply people are brushing me off—quite the contrary. I’ve been touched by the offers of help, the gifts—the good wishes, thoughts, and prayers. Kindness matters, of course, but it’s strange to be the focal point of this sort of attention. You want it, and you don’t want it. You think about what you will need to do to pay it all back.

The first few weeks of cancer testing wreaked havoc with my emotions, cranking them up on the inside in a way I’ve never quite faced before. I kept telling myself, “So and so got through it.” But the body has its own wisdom. The body has its own way of overriding the mind to make its message loud and clear. A killer is present. I’ve decided to take heed of this – to me – surprising sense of vulnerability and see what I can learn from it.

My surgery is already becoming a distant memory. I am currently resting and waiting for the next line of treatment. My surgeon has told me I’ll be facing radiation. The possibility of chemo still exists. Though the initial psychological intensity I experienced has finally become muted and seemingly more normal, it still shows up at regular intervals, reminding me not to take anything for granted. Everything in my life is going under the microscope. Yeah, yeah, I know. All those other cancer patients went through this, too.

I was already moving toward a major life change before I received my diagnosis—I’d been feeling the need to shake up my career and begin a new phase. These explorations are now on hold, because change has grabbed me. I don’t know what my life will look like after this is all over and I feel healthy again. Wellness needs to be my focus and this could ultimately include some new decisions regarding the way I have designed my life. I suspect I’ll have a couple of months to allow insights and ideas to bubble up as I’m dealing with the nitty-gritty of cancer treatment. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to listen to the birds, walk, dip into mystery novels, and watch spring arrive in my backyard. A wild bunny has been camped out there of late