I’ve taken a mini hiatus from blog writing and social media for two reasons. One, treatment struck again. But two, mostly because I was angry and reacting to my situation.
For treatment, I went through some more rounds of radiation. I also had a scan and found out I have a new lesion in my skull. The good news is that my organs are still cancer free. But really, fuck good news. Or at least, that’s how I’ve been feeling.
The only thing worse than being angry and not being able to get out of that tornado is not wanting to. I found myself holding onto anger like a life preserver that, in the end, only promised to drown me or, at least, make me miserable.
Stage IV cancer is the embodiment of powerlessness. From new mets to hair loss to runaway side effects from treatment. The only control I have is with my attitude or how I choose to come to the world. For the past month I chose anger as the emotion to tether me to a sense of purpose in an otherwise meaningless landscape.
Of course, anger as an anchor into anything worthwhile is an illusion. I knew that when I was in it but it was the only thing that made me feel powerful in the moment.
I don’t recommend staying there too long because, from that place, people get pushed away and internalization of that emotion can lead to depression and inactivity: all things that stand in the way of tapping into real life purpose.
I will thank anger for showing up though. It was a shitty crutch (that I’m sure will be back at some point). But it was one that gave me perspective about my relationship to this emotion. My reasons for holding on to it when I do. Now, being mostly on the other side, I am reminded that things always move and change. I am also grateful to have had access to this feeling, because it is entirely human and part of this crazy life experience. It means I’m still alive.
I try to focus on gratitude for every day I get to experience, for the massive amounts of love in my life, for having options outside of just fading away from this disease. But right now I’m angry. Angry and depleted.
The darkest thing I can admit during times like these is that there are moments I have fantasies of being killed by a stray bullet or an intruder. Of course, I don’t really wish for that but it feels just as senseless and quicker than whatever I am going through.
I’m heading into another round of chemo tomorrow and every fiber of my being is resistant. It’s difficult to undergo what seems like barbaric measures to rid myself of this disease without any guarantee regarding its efficacy. The last chemo cocktail I was on seemed to only give me a host of uncomfortable side effects without de-bulking my bone mets. In fact there was a slight progression. Although who’s to say it didn’t keep the cancer from spreading to my lymph nodes or organs. I choose to believe it did something since the thought of getting knocked down for no reason is unbearable.
The truth is I’m resigned to a roller coaster life – hopefully wth some large breaks from treatment in between – but the acceptance of it doesn’t make it any easier or less exhausting. I see people expire from this disease on a regular basis and it’s been a challenge for me to remember that, while we are on similar paths, theirs are not mine. So matching up their diagnosis dates with mine and comparing their treatment paths with what I’ve gone through, gets me no closer to figuring out when my last breath will be.
So I put this post here to remind myself to stay moment-based. To say I will forge ahead. I will continue to find joy in my days. I will focus on love and life experiences and self expression. I will try to trust this process and during the moments I don’t, I will let myself cry and be afraid, knowing that that too will pass.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. I was in the hospital for about a week and a half due to complications with the oral chemo drug I was taking.
Doing nothing except healing gave me time to reflect on this stage IV life. I thought I’d share a few of the things I face daily. Most of the below, I don’t share with anyone so many people are unaware of what goes on behind the body scenes.
Of course, not all journeys are the same, but here’s a view into mine with the hope that some of you will relate and, for those of you who are supporting someone with cancer, maybe you’ll get an eye into some of what they are going through.
- Pain and fatigue is a part of my daily life: The intensity of pain and fatigue shifts. Sometimes it’s worse than others. I’ve gotten good at compartmentalizing and shutting out some of the discomfort. I’ve learned to focus on other things to distract my brain. Surprisingly, it’s more difficult to do that with fatigue. There are times, like now, fresh out of the hospital, where I have to lie down for a moment after putting on an article of clothing. Needless to say, it can take me a long time to get out of the house.
- Sometimes the side effects from treatment will set me back as much as any disease progression will: This is why I like supplemental modalities to help quell certain side effects. But there are times my body will react adversely to treatment anyway. And like now, I am still healing and therefore am off treatment all together for at least two weeks. This means the disease may be progressing during this time. A scary prospect I try not to think about.
- Every time there’s a setback, I know something similar is likely to happen again at some point: Lying in the hospital, I typically have thoughts like “what if I don’t leave this time?” Eventually I get to the point where I realize this bump in the road is just part of the bumpy road I’m navigating. The goal then becomes to maximize and multiply the good days.
- I don’t make long term plans anymore: This is not because I think I’m going to be dead next year. But all I have is right now. Long term plans don’t give me hope of survival. In fact, thinking about going to a spa next summer just feels like an alien conversation. What does give me hope is soaking up as much of the moment as I am able. And of course, short terms plans, like I’m going to have a big meal when I get out of the hospital, always work too.
- There are always side effect issues: Some are worse than others, and some I’ve gotten used to ignoring, like the intermittent pain in my neck from bone mets. The funny thing is that as some of the larger effects dissipate or as I get used to them, I start to notice the smaller side effects. Right now I’m dealing with finger tip neuropathy, which is more annoying than anything. And it signals that maybe the other side effects are just not taking such a great toll at the moment.
- I’m not suicidal, but sometimes I think about what it will be like to drop this body: I love life. I love living. I don’t feel like I’ve said my piece yet. But there are times where this journey is so taxing that I imagine transcending this life and what it will be like to move on from all of this. I’m not there yet and I’m hopeful I will get strong, get better and self realize before I say goodbye. But I do wonder about the end an awful lot.
- Friends are great, but so is connecting to people going through the same thing: When I was in the hospital, I had friends visit and bring me things daily. They were all so wonderful and there is only so much they can understand what I’m going through. I’m actually happy about that. I wouldn’t want anyone I love to truly “get” this. I tend to shy away from anything Cancer. Pink, marches, walks, talks…etc. I don’t want to integrate that into my life or identify with it more than I need to. For that reason, I rarely talk to other people going through similar things. However, I’ve been on Twitter for a while and have found the digital support and understanding to be unmatched. So while I was laid up, I wound up connecting with someone who has become a close Twitter friend. We spoke on the phone at length about treatment, side effects, how we navigate loved ones and the public. And while our journeys are not exactly the same, there is a mutual caring and understanding I haven’t found anywhere else.
- It’s become important to me to understand every medication or treatment I’m given: My oncologist is a terrific quarterback. He’s always on top of next steps and responds to emergencies and non-emergencies at lightening speed. However, I have become of the mind that if something were to happen to me while I am “managing” my treatment, I’m ok with that. If something happens because a doctor makes a decision that doesn’t resonate with my body, I don’t think I’d forgive myself. So, when I was in the hospital, they put me on TPN (intravenous nutrition). The drip rate was fairly high and I could feel it was freaking my body out. So I requested they lower the rate, which made the infusion more manageable. I am constantly navigating things this way and have regretted none of my choices, since I’ve built a team I trust and that gives me all the information I request. Plus, everybody’s body is different and, while I may not be an expert in Cancer treatment, I’m an expert in how my body feels.
- The weight loss messes with my body dysmorphia: This may be something unique to my situation as I have never heard anyone else discuss this….I’ve lost a lot of weight since treatment. Currently I’m 5’5″ and 105 pounds, about 6 pounds underweight. I have lost a lot of muscle mass so that it can be difficult to open a car door or a bottle of pills. Part of me is pleased with the thinness and I’ve gotten compliments on the way I look from men to the woman at the imaging place, who always harps on how gorgeously thin I am. The last time I went in, right before my hospital stay, she said “You’re almost a supermodel now.” Definitely messes with my head a bit, since I come from a background where being thin and looks were a huge focus. I am working on shifting my priority to building strength. Because it is only with strength that I’ll be able to handle treatment or fight what I have effectively.
I don’t generally get sentimental about death. When someone dies, I see it as their last stop on the train in whatever body they arrived in. And I don’t believe they fully disappear. In fact, I think they reenter a big pool of oneness, that births us all, only to reemerge in myriad ways I won’t even pretend to know.
But this week has been different…
I met a woman at a party a year and a half ago. She was around my age, vibrant, smart, filled with purpose. She and I not only found we had a breast cancer diagnosis in common, but we shared an oncologist.
While I go about this journey quietly, she lived it out loud. But not as a victim. As something of a sherpa to those who would come after her in this dodgy terrain called cancer. And while I find empowerment in silence, she found it in positive broadcasting and even went as far as to make a documentary about her journey. It provided answers she had been looking for and was unable to find at the beginning of her diagnosis.
So we bonded over our commonalities and became Facebook friends, as you do. I never kept in touch and rarely saw her posts. But she was in my peripheral radar. Until this week…when I saw a post announcing she had passed away.
And this time, this death has been so utterly impossible for me to process. It’s not because she was taken by the disease that I have. It’s not because of our similar age or the doctors we shared. But it’s because she was doing and living and looking mighty damn healthy up until the end. Many of her Facebook friends even said they had no idea she was sick again.
So why would that hit a nerve? Well I pride myself in looking healthy and in doing and in living every day to its fullest. And I have believed it to be something of an antidote to this disease. As if living fully will, in part, make the cancer go away. It will signal to the Universe that I’m really ok to stick around for a bit.
But if it didn’t work for her, why will it work for me?
That may sound selfish. It may sound naive – I mean, everyone is different. And as I said in the beginning, we are all headed to the same point. When that will occur, no one knows. But her death strikes a chord of terror. It makes me feel like this thing may very well take me and what if it takes me before I realize myself or do what I feel I am meant to do?
And that’s where this woman’s story is actually an inspiration. AW Gryphon touched oh so many people. She was a light in this world. You didn’t need to talk to her for more than 10 minutes to know that. She said a lot in a short amount of time. She seemed to harness the air around her and fly towards purpose and meaning and authentic messaging that helped droves of people.
So while this death is still a difficult one for me to wrap my head around, I am going to choose to focus more on the life that was realized here. Because that’s worth celebrating.
There are a lot of articles about what not to say to cancer patients. For the most part I’ve heard everything I’ve come across. There are good explanations as to why not to say these things, and below is my hand at telling everyone what I actually hear when certain remarks are made.
Now this post may be a bit snarky and it comes on the heels of having some empty phrases and promises thrown my way. The truth is my very close friends and family can get away with saying things other people can’t. Because they are willing to connect to what’s going on. They are willing to go to this profound and sometimes dark place with me. The problem is when people pull words that sound like they belong to that profound place but either stay on the surface or even try to travel wholly uninvited to my inner world.
For those of you who don’t have Cancer, I’m sure finding the right words is tricky and uncomfortable. It’s tricky and uncomfortable for me to be going through this. And in some ways, that’s a better place to connect than trying to fix or heal or even allay your own fears about my or your mortality. I know you mean well and, for that, I thank you.
That said, this list may not speak for every Cancer patient out there, but this is what I hear when certain phrases come my way.
When you say: My Sister-in-law (or insert any other relation here) died of Cancer
What I hear: I’m better at word association games than human interaction. In fact, authentic human connection scares me a bit as does not having first hand understanding of profound situations.
When you say: I’m confident you’re going to beat this.
What I hear: I don’t know what to say but if I use a powerful word and sentiment, I know I’ll feel better, so you should too.
When you say: We’re going to get through this
NOTE: this is really ok coming from loved ones or people who mean it and are supportive. But recently I’ve heard it from a couple of people I just met.
What I hear when uttered by someone I just met: I like being a hero but chances are I will never call you again.
When you say: I know a guy who can totally cure you and will make some calls right away.
NOTE: generally uttered by the same people in the above camp who like to feel heroic in the moment.
What I hear: I really don’t have the connections I’m talking about and, if I do, I don’t have much time to work my way towards them, although talking to you now really makes me want to want to.
When you say: God has a plan
What I hear: I’m super good at giving people exactly what I need in times of stress. And that’s enough for me. Plus I’m not totally sorry that this wasn’t God’s plan for me.
When you say: You should stop eating meat and dairy. They cause cancer.
What I hear: I take all of my medical advice from Buzzfeed and Facebook. Oh, and I’m really good at getting facts from headlines.
or I’m a staunch believer in holistic medicine but I also believe everyone’s bodies are exactly the same.
When you say: My Sister-in-law (or insert relation here) had the exact same thing and totally beat it. I’ll find out what she did and let you know.
What I hear: I tend to jump to conclusions about things with very little information. I’m also fairly good at over-promising and under-delivering. If you hound me a lot, I may send you a few links to outdated articles that are probably not relevant.
When you say: How are you doing????
NOTE: when this is genuine from someone who cares, this is a great question. But my detector is pretty sensitive and, when said with that certain anxiety, it often really means “What’s your prognosis?”
What I hear: I’m both fascinated and afraid of death. Mine and yours. So fascinated that this is the overriding emotion here. In fact, you have sort of disappeared. Now how long do you have?
When you say: Are you OK????
NOTE: similar to the above person. Again, when asked without that anxiety, totally fine. But I know the difference.
What I hear: I’m not really going to listen to the ins and outs of your tests and progress but I’m doing my part here to support you because you obviously need it.
When you say: I would never do Chemo. What I would do is…
What I hear: White noise