The Me You See – Dedicated to My Pink Sisters
I was never a fearful person before cancer. I think when you go through a life threatening illness at the time you stoically go through it because you have no choice. I had no choice. Treatment is so regimented it is like you have been drafted in an army…
Actually, I was drafted into an army – a Pink Rover Line that is so long and so wide that it would surprise you.
Cancer is no respecter of persons, it doesn’t matter your financial status, your race, your religion, your age. Once you get drafted, you are drafted and the drafting will leave you shell shocked but before you can even wrap your brain around WHAT is happening you are enrolled in a regimen that you have no choice but to be an active participant in.
I suppose it is a good thing that it is so regimented because it doesn’t give you much time to really think. You go from doctor to doctor to oncologist to nurse, to surgery, treatment, radiation – in such a manner that it physically wears you out. Chemo is no walk in the park. I remember my first round. I was a newbie, doing what I was told to do. I came armed with books, my cell phone, my laptop. It was going to be okay, I was use to multi-tasking. Holding out my arm for the IV I said, “Here I am! I got this!” And then came the first dose… It takes hours… And the chemo I had is nicknamed “The Red Devil” for a reason. That chemo is NO joke – it means business as it runs through your veins. Six years later I can still recall the taste, the smell the feeling of that chemo going through my body. It hit hard and like a red tidal wave rushed with my blood through my veins to every part of my being. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t type, all I could do was feel and what I felt was exhaustion. It was like something I had never experienced before and would not have known what to expect.
That first night, I could taste it, I could smell it, it was in my pores. Exhausted I went back to my childhood home and collapsed on the bed. That night I had nightmares, I dreamt of hell and heat and sulfur and woke up scared out of my mind, my heart racing, my skin drenched in sweat. No matter what I did during that time of treatment with Adriamycin, cytoxan and Taxol – I could not get that smell out of my nostrils.
The thing about treatment is this – that in a sense it is so regimented that you don’t have much time to think – you just go through. For me, that was my saving grace – I followed a treatment schedule, I was in the Pink Army now. “Deal with it Soldier! You don’t have a choice!” So I did.
Early detection is key – I cannot say that enough. After rounds of two different types of chemotherapy (I hope I remember this right… Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol) and then I endured 35 rounds of radiation. Radiation – a crazy thing that takes what looks like a red laser to your cancer site location and burns the absolute hell out of your skin in the matter of minutes. But it works… It’s role, to make sure it obliterates any cancer cells that *might* have survived those rounds of chemotherapy. Honestly, worse than any beach sunburn (while using baby oil) that a person has ever gone through, but you do it because you are in the army now, it is part of the regimen AND it works. And really, you don’t have a choice.
The second hardest part (and I say second, because the first hardest part is hearing you’ve been diagnosed with cancer) is post treatment life. This is the time when you have done your time in the Treatment Service and all of a sudden – you are done. You are cancer-free. Some people choose to use the repulsive term “in remission” but those are the people who are sitting there “waiting” for the cancer to return. I was not part of that delegated group. Nor will I EVER be. I was declared, “cancer-free” with a shake of the hand and a congratulations, I was released.
What next?? Actual time to think? What happened? I looked around and all of a sudden a flood of feelings hit me like a tsunami. WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT NOW? HOW? WHY?
All those feelings came upon me like a floodgate. Not only did cancer affect my body – it affected my life. I became keenly aware during the time I was in the Pink Army Regimen of treatment of who outside my Pink world had abandoned me. People I NEVER would have guessed. People who were close to me who while I was sick didn’t know how to talk to me. I was still the same person, I hadn’t changed – cancer happened TO ME it wasn’t what I had become. Yet in looking at me perhaps it made them look at their own mortality and they were “awkward” with me. They didn’t know how to identify with me anymore. It seemed like there was a lot of “head nodding” and fake smiling and small talk which perhaps they didn’t think I could pick up on… But I did. I don’t blame them, I get it – you don’t have common ground anymore. You have never been where I was. This is where the bond between my Pink Sisters came in. My Pink family, “the girls” the ones who got it. The ones who knew. We could just look at each other and get it. We could act as goof-bally as we wanted or cry or scream or vent or laugh like crazy women and we got it. WHY because we understood. We understood that we were drafted, that this wasn’t our fault, that we had no control over it. We were there for each other – holding tight to each-others hands – not letting go. In many of our cases the holding of those hands (emotionally speaking) was what kept us fighting. For those of us who experienced people we loved falling away from us – those hands became lifelines. Holding on for dear life.
It’s been six years. Some would say, “why are you still talking about it? You’ve been healed! You are cancer-free! MOVE ON!” To which I would look at them with a mix of emotions – anger, pity, rage, sorrow and disdain because unless you are a survivor you have no idea how very difficult that is. Each of our journeys have been individual, unique. Each experience different. The thing about the Pinks is that we understand that. We allow each other to feel whatever it is we feel. It’s okay if you’re angry, or scared, or sad, or whatever you feel – ALLOW yourself to feel it. It’s okay. That’s the difference between a survivor and someone who hasn’t been through what we’ve gone through.
I don’t say any of what I’ve written in bitterness. God has given me a second chance at life, and I am every day thankful. I have Pink sisters who didn’t make it and they were no less deserving than I.
I’m not the same person I was prior to cancer. My life has changed, my body has changed, my family has changed. I’m still trying to come to terms with it. Some days are easier than others. Some not. I didn’t ask for cancer to happen to me. I didn’t ask for my life to change – but I was drafted. I have chosen not to become bitter – but there are times when I don’t know HOW to become better. I hurt. Even as a Christian, I feel lost along the way. There feels like there is such a responsibility to being given the gift of a second chance at life – but there are added responsibilities that are due to the fabric of my life changing so drastically. I did not sign up for this, I did not expect this. The range of emotions I go through from gratitude to anger, to intensive fear is something I suppose will stick with me for the rest of my life.
I know that this is something that my Pink sisters feel too. Cancer is not just about what affects the body, it affects all of what makes YOU you.
If I were to be truly transparent – I would have to say that more than the fear of going through it again (which a survivor worries about every time they go for that next oncology appointment, because you didn’t expect to get cancer in the first place – once bitten twice shy) – and that fear comes up every time you walk through those hospital doors. Even after 6 years the fear always comes up with every appointment.
But more than that – the fear of being loved and left again. The fear of being hurt. The fear of being alone is one that for those of us who went through it and saw people walk away from us is something that is a scar as real as any surgical scar. It’s the PSD following the Pink drafting. The residue of what is left as you try to pick up those pieces (and even after 6 years I’m still picking them up) and move forward.
What encouraging advice can I give? The good that has come from cancer? The rainbow after the storm? I can say that you learn to love deeper. Like a tornado that unexpectedly comes upon the house of you – it rips the hinges of your bullshit meter door right off your house. GONE. You no longer have the capacity to deal with bullshit or pettiness or drama. WHY? Because you realize how short life is. You have had a crash course in what is important and what is not. Many survivors have become just raw. We have a tendency not to sugarcoat ANYTHING. We ARE the REAL McCoy. We tell it like it is.
That’s refreshing. And if a survivor loves you – you are in for an intimate full blown love affair like you have never experienced in your life. Survivors love completely, passionately with all their hearts because they know that no one is promised tomorrow. NOT ANYONE OF US – all though we all live like God owes it to us – He does not. So being around a cancer survivor can be refreshing because they are honest and straightforward and to the point… At least most of us…
I choose not to live in bitterness – I choose to become better, but I am a work in progress. I get filled with fear of the unknown. I get scared… When you go through cancer, you learn to depend upon yourself because honestly – NO ONE is going through it WITH YOU. It is happening to YOU. It isn’t until it is all said and done that you are even able to think what it must have been like for your loved ones (the ones that chose to hang around) because during the treatment regimen it is taking ALL it can for you to get through it. You don’t mean to be selfish or self-involved, it just leaves you no choice.
Six years later – my life has changed. I can see the better now. There IS a rainbow after the storm. You just have to believe and wait and see. And most of all – walk in forgiveness and love and trust that even if you don’t know the WHY of it. God sees everything in its fullness. After the worst of the storms comes some of the MOST beautiful rainbows. I see it now – the rainbow… Sometimes it feels a lot farther off in the future than it actually is, but that is all about perception. The fact is – it’s there. You just have to look hard enough for it…