Friday, January 26, 2007

Am I Done Yet?

I wonder if cancer patients every get to a point when they completely forget they ever had cancer. When it’s so far in the past that it seems like another life and they’re done with that life forever. I wonder if I’m nearing that point.

Of course, not really, because I’m still battling our insurance company about my cancer bills. I still have a post-chemo rug on my head and scars on my chest. And, sad to say, I now have about a dozen new friends who are fellow cancer patients/survivors. I see them fairly regularly, and of course, we talk about what we have in common: cancer.

I wonder if I’ll wake up one day and decide I never want to see another cancer patient again; never talk about cancer again; never have anything more to do with cancer. That is, go back to pre-cancer life and pretend nothing’s happened.

When people live through horrific accidents, near-death experiences, loss of someone they love, any traumatic event, can they ever wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’m done with that part of my life now.”

Is there such a thing as post-traumatic stress syndrome for cancer patients?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

New Year, New Approach, New Wardrobe

I’ve adopted a new attitude about cancer and dying. Actually, not a new attitude, but a new approach.

I’ve been pretty open, sometimes even flippant in talking about cancer and dying. I believe that things take on unnecessary gravitas when we speak in whispers or don’t speak about them at all. I went around telling everyone about my cancer and weaving cancer into my conversations if there was any relevance at all. I would casually mention that I might not be around when talking about events ten, twenty years down the line.

But the other day, Tony told me this was a bad attitude. I disagree. My attitude was and is the same. Statistically, my prognosis isn’t good but I know I’m going to beat the statistics. I think I’ll be around for at least another ten years, maybe more, maybe even outlast Tony. At the same time, I’m not living in la-la land. I know that cancer is likely to come back someday and kill me. I don’t want to live in fear of it, so I treat cancer with complete disrespect. I will laugh it off and casually throw out comments about “when I’m dead and gone...”. But I see now that this isn’t necessarily a good approach for people around me.

So I’ve decided to change my approach to cancer. I won’t talk about it so much any more. Frankly, I’m a bit bored with talking about cancer, and I’m sure my friends and family are too. I won’t make flippant remarks about dying. I won’t talk about what will happen at the end. And I won’t put off buying things for myself thinking that I might not be around to use them for very long.

Armed with this new approach and a credit card, I went out this weekend and bought a new bag and a new pair of shoes. I’m going to buy new clothes because my closet’s full of clothes I’ve had for ten years. If I’m going to be around for another ten or twenty years, I might as well look and feel good.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Are People Afraid of Me?

I realized something today. People are afraid of people with cancer. And even cancer patients are afraid of other people with worse stages of cancer than they have.

I recently visited a friend in the hospital after her surgery for breast cancer. Let’s call her “Sally”. She and I have another mutual acquaintance from the waiting room of the oncologist we all go to. This mutual acquaintance has metastatic breast cancer -- it’s her second time around and it’s spread to her lungs and a few other organs. This, after having been given the all-clear eight years ago when she was first diagnosed. Despite her dreary prognosis, she’s bright and cheerful and rarely complains about the grueling treatment she’s going through.

I mentioned to Sally that I hadn’t heard from our mutual friend for a while and perhaps I should call her so we could all get together soon. Sally’s response left me speechless. She told me she was afraid of this other lady. We didn’t go into details because although I didn’t share this fear, I immediately knew what she meant.

I understand why non-cancer people are afraid of cancer patients. They don’t know what to say. They feel pity. It’s depressing to be around a sick, dying person. They’re faced with their own mortality.

For cancer patients, the mortality issue hits hardest when looking at other patients in worse condition. It’s hard to watch someone in the last stages of cancer without thinking that someday, you’ll be there too. And if the patient is visibly dying, like the bed-ridden, emaciated, bald cancer patients you see in the movies, it can be scary.

I was never that stereotyped patient when I was going through chemo. I was lucky enough to escape all the side effects (except the baldness). None of my friends stayed away or kept their distance. If anything, my friendships became stronger and more meaningful.

But what if I WERE one of those visibly dying patients, cloistered in bed in a dark room? Would anyone come to visit me then? And even if they did, would they only do it because they felt too guilty not to?

I don’t want to force anyone to face that dilemma -- to spend time with me out of obligation and pity. But really, why else would anyone choose to spend time with a sick, dying, bed-ridden person? I doubt I’ll be cracking jokes or laughing at that stage. Then I wouldn’t be me anymore.

I guess that’s the really frightening thing. Watching someone you care about becoming less and less the person you know and love.

Monday, January 1, 2007

End of a Bad Year

This year started with me getting progressively worse news about my cancer (It’s just the breast and lymph nodes under the arms. Nope! It’s in the neck! Oh! It’s also on the skin! No time for surgery! Get on chemo straight away!). And now the year is ending with a mysterious swelling that none of my doctors can identify for certain. Seems like two fitting bookends to a bad year.

2006 was the year of cancer. The year of living cancerously.

Here are some things I’ve learned after a year of having cancer:

1) Medicine is more art than science; more guesswork than certainty.

2) We DO have some control over cancer. We can’t prevent cancer, but we can greatly reduce our risk with daily decisions about diet, exercise, and exposure to harmful chemicals. (There is science behind this!)

3) Facing death has not made me sweat the small stuff any less. In fact, I’m micro-worrying even more. Why? I have more control over whether my kids eat enough vegetables than I have over whether my cancer comes back.

4) It’s easy to be brave when you have no choice.

5) It’s hard to be brave all the time.

6) Cancer patients should be allowed, nay, ENCOURAGED to throw a tantrum once in a while. Especially when those tantrums are aimed at building contractors and bad drivers on the road, rather than doctors and family.

7) People are capable of surprising acts of generosity, kindness, and understanding when dealing with cancer patients. People are also capable of surprising acts of insensitivity, callousness, and apathy when dealing with cancer patients.

8) Cancer has not been the life-altering experience I expected it to be. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

9) I’m more afraid of how I’ll act in the face of death than I am of death itself.

10) I am going to die someday. (I USED to be immortal, really...)