Most days I don’t think too much about being a cancer survivor. My life has equalized to a place that feels familiar, of pre-cancer Grace. There is currently nothing on my calendar that is out of the ordinary.
My physical health is excellent. I have the right amount of energy for a mom of three young kids. And I have no residual pain of any kind from treatment.
Of course there are plenty of small reminders, such as the fact that my right arm is always a little swollen from lymphedema and I have to wear a compression sleeve any time I am active. Or the fact that I have short, purple hair. Or the fact that my eyebrows are growing in a non-color and are very sparse.
And then there are days like today. Today I had a check-up with my breast surgeon, Dr. Pesce. I haven’t seen her since November or December, I can’t remember exactly. I am supposed to see her every 6 months, but she delivered twins early in the year, so our appointment was (obviously) delayed.
I showed up at the hospital in a great mood. The sun was shining and I felt good. I walked down to the Breast Center and felt a twinge of sadness and fear as I entered. I announced myself and was told that the doctor was working out of the Cancer Center today.
Going to the Breast Center is one thing, but the Cancer Center? I was not mentally prepared for this.
When I walked in, I scanned the scene. As usual, I was the youngest person by a solid two decades. Now that I am a survivor, I can’t help wonder what stage of their disease odyssey everyone else is on. No one looked terribly ill. Maybe they were all survivors too? It is an unlikely scenario, but one I want to believe.
I was branded with the dreaded patient bracelet. I am curious why they make those of us who are just there for a quick check up wear them. It really feels like a scarlet letter announcing to anyone in the room that, “I AM A CANCER PATIENT”.
As I walked down the hall to use the ladies room I passed an empty chemo room. Unexpectedly and exactly on cue, I started to cry. Was I crying because of what I endured in those rooms? What others were currently enduring in those rooms? Or because I know many more people I care about will need those rooms, as time goes on?
I think it was a combination of all of it, but the memory of my time hooked up to poison definitely triggered some PTSD.
Other than being thrilled to see my surgeon, who I really adore and respect, the appointment was unremarkable. She did a very thorough breast exam on both sides. The only interesting finding was that my armpit on the cancer side is still swollen, but she said that is within the realm of normal, considering I had two surgeries and one massive infection in that area. I heard the words we all hope, as cancer graduates, to hear: ‘See you in 6 months’.
I am able to live my life and forget about what happened just months ago. For this I am so grateful. But I am also able to be transported back there in a moment. The memory slams into focus, crystallizing the fear of the disease, guilt of leaving my family, pain from side effects, melancholy for the loss of time.
This immediate shift in perspective begs the question, ‘what is the right balance of moving forward, yet remembering what you’ve survived?’. Will I pay later for feeling so ‘normal’ right now? Should I be grieving more in the acute aftermath, so as to not suffer from PTSD later? Is it unrealistic to assume I will be one of the lucky ones who remains cancer free until I die from something else at a ripe old age?
These questions and concepts are just the tip of the cancer survivorship iceberg.
I feel like I should already have this figured out. It’s over, I am fine now. It wasn’t that bad was it? So many people have it so much worse than I did.
Expectation, reality and memory processing are all conceptual. Expectation does not necessarily create reality and reality does not perfectly translate our memories.
I will continue to take two steps forward and hope that as I pass empty chemo rooms, the flashbacks will be less visceral over time.
As we all ponder these existential thoughts, let’s also not forget to keep an eye out for my eyebrows.