Amazingly and mysteriously, this last round has been the easiest. Symptoms have been spotty and milder, I got out of bed faster and have been running around town days earlier than before. Still not back to normal (ask me about my eye twitching, it’s charming) but it feels safe to say the worst is truly over. Which means that things start to change in ways that haunt me and echo with a fear that has been dormant for years.
Now that the fiercest part of the fight is winding down, my perspective changes. In the middle of chemo, it’s pretty easy to put my head down and go hard. I was in a fight and doing what I needed to do to win — it was war. A war that seemed to go my way; all indications are that the tumor has either died or shrunk to near oblivion. We’ll know more once everything is cut out, but for now I am confident that we won this stinking war. After one last surgical maneuver (more on that later), it’s time to adjust to peacetime. But it means adjusting again to my new normal and recognizing what cost the war has exacted.
The bad news: I’m going to have to start shaving my legs again, harumph. And eventually my hair will grow back and those two-minute showers are going to be much harder to achieve. And I have to lay aside my Wonder Woman fighting spirit. Every third Friday will not be a fight marked by seven bags of chemotherapy. I will not be attending appointments with a superhero costume on under my scarf. Rather my life will return to the mundane—happily so, please pass me a mop so I can deal with the kitchen floor—and the superhero will be not be called to action every day. When she goes, what she was covering all along is revealed: the uneasy fear that cancer will stalk me, that this is only over for now.Perhaps I need to face the fact that I didn’t win a war at all, but only a battle. The second battle in a war that has no timeline and no clear parameters. I have fought on multiple stages already: two bouts of breast cancer, one skirmish on skin (basal cell carcinoma, cut cleanly away and watched carefully after) and another flare-up inside the lady plumbing (pre-cancer cut from cervix, also watched carefully after). I am a person with abnormal cells riddled throughout, I am reminded every time one of the kids in the school play gently touches my face and asks me to explain the dozens of moles that dot my face, neck, arms, everywhere. Once upon a time I thought the moles were a sign that cancer wouldn’t get me. Breast cancer took my mother’s mother, and later tried and failed to take my mother. Before I got sick the first time, I told myself that perhaps my moles meant my abnormal cells would remain on the outside of me and cancer would skip off my surface. I was wrong, of course, although I think even underneath that rationalization I was afraid cancer would come for me.
It has been 16 years since it first came knocking, and during that time the fear grew quieter and quieter. It became less of a certainty that it would come back, each passing year the fear burrowed deeper and grew smaller. Maybe I had truly beaten it and I could rest easy. When I found the hard thickening in that same breast last spring, the fear didn’t swell so much as everything went quiet. Getting the area checked out was a long process — watched it myself before seeing a doctor, he sent me for a mammogram, they checked and ran me into the ultrasound room, they scheduled me for a biopsy, days later I got the call. It was probably two months time all told, and throughout that stretch I couldn’t even glance at the long-dormant fear. Didn’t want to disturb it I guess. Because once it’s woken up for a real reason it comes back to stay.
And here it is, coming back for good. How will the cancer come back next time? When? How bad will it be? Will I have to go through all this again, more chemo? Surgery? Can I withstand it? How much superhero lives in me? Will my kids still be young? Will I make it longer to see them married? Grandkids? How long do I get? What can I do to stop it? Should I radically change my life? Should I stop eating sugar? Oh my god, do I have to stop drinking wine?! How much control do I have? Can I stop what’s coming? Should I even try?
Existential debates rattle in my head anew. I have some answers to those questions, but this isn’t meant to be a dissertation on my philosophy of life and death. We all have our own brushes with the questions, and so many of us have been close enough to cancer to see how powerful it is, to fear it as much as I do. And our wrestling isn’t so easy to verbalize; I find I’m reluctant to commit anything to written words when a thought can be turned on its head and blown away in an instant. Let the debate stay internal for now.
And before I really adjust to peacetime, my battle isn’t over yet. I have my first Herceptin infusion a week from Friday; thereafter I will get one every three weeks until I have been on it for a year—roughly to the end of July, I may need to push it off a week or two as I recover from surgery December 2. It will take some time from what I understand, it’s a big surgery with two massive sites of drains and stitches to heal. Hopefully the Herceptin won’t exacerbate the recovery, from what I understand it is rather gentle and easy to manage, certainly compared to actual chemotherapy. Once I get about six weeks out from surgery I should be feeling like my old self, and the battle will downshift into something that looks an awful lot like normal life. But the fear will be back and I’m going to have to learn to live with it. That’s what makes my new normal.