Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Internet is Not Your Friend

Okay, I don’t really mean that. I love the internet. It entertains me while I’m at my crappy job. It lets me talk to and see my family. It keeps me up to date on celebrity gossip. But it is also a terrible place filled with scary things. Especially when you google things like “hip pain after breast cancer” and find page after page after page of women talking about how their pain was bone metastasis.

Those pages are so hard to forget.

There are also pages and pages and pages of women who had bone pain and it was bursitis, or arthritis or ….not cancer, but for some reason, those ones fall out of my mind more easily. I’m sure all survivors feel this way at times, that their fate is not the “happily ever after” kind. The chances that my cancer will return and spread outside the breast are low (single digit given my stage and treatment strategy) and yet I see myself in all these women who will not survive cancer. I am haunted by a tiny little number, when I should be focused on the other, much nicer “88% chance of no recurrence” number. Why do I do that? Why am I unable to box up my fears and leave them on a shelf for the day? Why is this hip pain bothering me so much, not physically but emotionally?

Because survivorship is a mindf*ck.

At times I have real feelings of serenity and peace, assured that this cancer crap really is behind me. And in the same day, the same hour, the same minute even, I can feel sheer terror that cancer is at this very minute insidiously making a home in my body, stealing precious time from me.

I think it would be easier to handle if the turns didn’t happen so quickly…maybe. Survivorship is like being on a rollercoaster that you can’t get off; sometimes you love the ride because hey, at least you’re on it and other times you’re sure you’re going to die.

And no one tells you how to deal with this. Doctors never address it. It isn’t part of my medical plan. I talk about hormone therapy and bone scans and blood work with my doctors. I never talk about how I’m doing or how I’m coping.

On the whole, I think I’m doing pretty well. Magically, I managed not to become a total basket case through this whole nightmare. But I’ll never have a day again when I don’t think about cancer.  It is sort of like cancer is this annoying yappy dog who is permanently tied to my arm. Sometimes the dog is quiet and well behaved and I can ignore it. And sometimes is barks fiercely, and I feed it fear, and it grows and gets louder. Even when I'm not talking about it the dog is there: every day, every hour, ever minute.

In case you can’t tell, survivorship is what is most on my mind these days. Some days I’m hopeful (see my previous post). Some days I’m just scared. Mostly, I just want to figure out a way to live in this new reality, preferably in a state of hope and serenity. Worry sucks.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Choose Your Poison

I started this post in a different way. A mopey way. I was outlining all my fears about recurrence or metastasis. Basically, I was whining. Luckily I had the good sense not to subject you all to that.

I realized, “hey, dummy, the more your dwell on those thoughts the more that worry steals your joy.” And cancer has taken quite enough, thank you. It got part of my boob, my really great, beautiful, long, straight hair (can you tell I’m really not over that one) and 8 months of my life. So, I’m going to continue to try to ignore the monkey on my back and instead focus on living. Fully. With joy.

Then I thought about a work lunch I had recently and the internal monologue I had, which I will share with you now.

The other day, the big boss summoned my team for lunch. He gave us ten minutes notice and, let me tell you, attendance was not optional. He was hosting and had chosen a place that served only one thing: blowfish stew. Now, I never really watched The Simpsons but I do remember the episode where Homer thought he had 24 hours to live and it was because he ate this fish. This fish, if it isn’t prepared correctly, can kill you.  Great!

Off we went for lunch. As the only foreigner at work, what I eat and how I handle things is always observed with great interest. Meaning: I couldn’t avoid the stew. Of course, I know I’m being silly. In Korea you have to have a special license to serve this fish and the place we went to has been around for 20 years and they haven’t killed anyone. I mean, rationally, I was safe.

But that is the thing. It’s true for cancer and it’s true for this: knowing something in your rational brain and knowing something in your heart are two very different things. I did not want to eat that fish. I also did not want to embarrass my boss (or myself) by refusing. So I ate the fish. It was tasty, though not so good that I understand why people were willing to risk death for it. As far as fish go, it was mild. For the record, I also ate some swordfish skin. Yep, that was lunch: poison stew, fish skin and kim chi.*

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. The other day, as I was eating this lunch, internally freaking out about ingesting poison I thought about chemo, another poison I willingly took into my body. It's some toxic stuff. You can tell just by the way nurses handle it in the hospital. If it isn’t prepared right or administered correctly there can be some pretty dire consequences. So as I ate this poison fish, I thought to myself, “your body handled chemo, it can definitely handle this.” Of course, I was being extremely dramatic as the fish was safe and toxin free, but you get the idea. In my back pocket is the knowledge that I did chemo, that I did radiation and that I’m still here and I’m still fine.

I’m trying to see this experience as something that can be a source of strength and inspiration for me. Because that is a much more joyful, positive way to live with cancer. Rather than constantly worrying cancer might come back, I have this experience to draw on that tell me I can handle more than I think I can. So whether it is eating some fish I’m scared of, or dealing with something bigger, it is surprising how often I draw on that time. And that, I think, is a better way to reflect on cancer.

* I feel a deep responsibility to point out that most of the time I LOVE Korean food. I love kim chi, I just like to eat it with rice, or sundubu not fish skin. Anyway, my point is, it’s delicious 95% of the time. Don’t think because I’m complaining about one lunch that you should avoid Korean food; that would be tragic.