The Cancer Journals: Round in Circles
This week, Sheelagh describes her deepest feelings of fear even after treatment is over and she is officially declared cancer-free.
It’s like trying to walk a straight line on a sobriety test when you’re not really up for it, this attempt to stride into the future while constantly looking back over your shoulder. Post-chemo life is like that.
It’s early days yet and forgetfulness is all I really want. As some of the trappings of active cancer intervention are discarded, I hope the memories will fall away with them. But they don’t. They tend to cling more tightly, like a frightened child.
The central line is pulled from my chest, and two weeks later the sutures are removed. No more appointments or scans appear on the immediate horizon. I can bathe rather than shower, ingest cold fluids without risking laryngospasms, chemo infusions are done and alarm bells on IV pumps aren’t meant for me. Nausea abates and hair re-growth is eagerly anticipated. I begin not to flinch every time the phone rings in anticipation of a call from my oncologist.
But quietly my mind whispers, “for now,” to each item ticked off the list.
I feel alone as loved ones celebrate and declare me “CANCER-FREE!” but I viscerally can’t join in. I’m trying to hide the fact I’ve seldom felt so blue and that I’ve been weeping and can’t articulate why. Perhaps I’m scared, now that I’ve been kicked out of the active treatment nest. Who’s fighting the cancer at this moment? Being a cancer warrior was at least an active role; stopping to see if it can catch up to me once again is simply terrifying.
I have three months free of the structured cancer treatment world, before the cycle starts again with blood work, scopes and scans. I’m afraid to hope in case I attract misfortune through that very hope. I aim instead for the mask of calm acceptance over the lurking threat to my life-and just about then, the cumulative effects of chemo begin to make themselves known.
Acronyms exist for everything in the medical world. Now I experience CIPN, Chemo- Induced Peripheral Neuropathy. Due to the chemo agent Oxaliplatin, my hands and feet burn, freeze and buzz constantly and walking can be an effort; my balance is iffy and an electrical shock runs through my arms each time I reach for something. Many glasses get broken as they slip from my hands. Chemo brain, that mental fogginess experienced by some both during and after chemotherapy, lingers.
The fear that I’ll never really feel well or normal again suddenly hits me. I literally can’t run away from this one.
Thankfully, hope isn’t defeated so easily by an acronym. Like a spring tulip it keeps inching its way out of the earth because, well, that’s what Hope does. It’s sporadic initially, but there.
The first bath in nine months is glorious. Showers may be faster and more efficient, but a good soak in the tub can’t be beat! Bald spots appear smaller, well before the timeline for hair re-growth is even possible. I learn that chemo brain will eventually fade and concentration will improve. I can start to rebuild my stamina.
To-Do lists are suddenly resurrected and various treatments are tried to overcome the CIPN.
And I know that if the Oxaliplatin worked, I can live with these deficits. I can live. And wasn’t that the ultimate goal for all this suffering?
And so like a fledgling I step out of the nest and keep frantically beating my wings until I get airborne again – even if I only initially flutter in circles.