“You have cancer … again.”
You would think those words wouldn’t sting so badly the third time. As if you’d become numb to them or had grown a thick skin towards them or maybe the familiarity of those three words made them not so terrifying. Not the case. Those three words carry so much weight they can drown you.
Every time you’ve heard those words, time has stopped. It’s an eerie feeling. As the doctor continues to talk, you can’t hear a word she’s saying, but all of your other senses become hyper-focused on everything else except those words and what they mean. The smell of the room; the feeling and sound of the crinkly paper on the exam table; the time on the clock; the smoothness of the little dimples in your toddler’s hand that you’re holding; the look on your mother’s face. All perfectly etched in your mind forever. What felt like forever was really only seconds. Suddenly all you can feel is fear and grief. You instantly start grieving the life you were supposed to have. Your head fills with millions of questions and scenarios. You’re a healthy 31-year-old with two young children and there’s no family history of cancer. What did you do wrong? Will you die?
You have the “good cancer,” whatever that means. Is that supposed make you feel better? Your cancer isn’t a big deal? That this “good cancer” isn’t going to change your life and rob you of some precious moments and won’t kill you?
Your first diagnosis in April 2014 was obviously a complete shock. You dealt with it the only way you knew how. You went into survival mode. There were no tears, no pity party; you checked out and auto pilot kicked in. Months of treatment were a blur. You kept a smile on your face even during the hardest days. Most of the time it was to keep those around you calm and comfortable. It was easier to do that then to expose your fears. With that came the responsibility of being “strong” and “brave”. Those words put a lot of pressure on you. You felt you had to live up to them even when you were crumbling inside or you would disappoint everyone around you. Those words are meant for other people, not you. You’re fighting cancer. You’re at war with your own body. You’re not brave or strong, you’re just trying to survive the day, sometimes the minute. No choice was given. If you had a choice you’d run as far away from cancer as you could. You wouldn’t look it in the eye.
Fast forward to your first relapse in October 2017. The shock was there this time but there was also a sense of calm. You got to complete remission once and you could do it again. Little did you know how drastically life would change this time around. The struggles this time were different. Treatment was much more aggressive, relationships were tested, some were lost, some were made stronger. Your children were older now and had an understanding that mom was sick. You carried all of their worries and fears on top of your own.
March of 2018 you spent 17 days in-patient to receive a stem cell transplant. With that came some extremely dark days. Moments of weakness and the feeling of giving up. You’d sit awake at night and try to rationalize how your children would be ok without you because this was just too hard. They deserved a mom who was well. You felt that somehow you were failing them. Not sure if it was divine intervention or some amazing support of a few special people but you crawled out of that scary space and pushed through.
You used those months of recovery to find yourself. So much of your identity the last couple of years had been attached to cancer. You decided to make this a teachable moment and to try to start living in the present. Cancer has taught you to not take things for granted, especially time. The time you give to others and the time they give you is irreplaceable and precious. You’ve also learned to set boundaries, healthy ones. If it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. Listen to yourself. Patience. Something that is worked on daily is patience. With yourself and others. Kindness. It’s so easy to be kind to others. It’s something that was instilled in you from a young age but to be kind to yourself is foreign. It’s hard most times especially when your mind and body seem to be traveling in different directions. You’ve also learned to cherish the small moments. You sometimes catch yourself just staring at your children or people you love to almost take a mental snapshot that’s just for you. You allow yourself to get lost in the moment, it’s beautiful.
So here you are again with your second relapse. Who gets cancer three times?? The same fears are back, maybe they never left. Anger has crept in this time. There’s this constant feeling of can you really beat this again? Can your body handle it? You’re mentally tired and that scares you. And that grief is back. Your life was getting back on track, you fell in love, your children were healthy and happy, you had a great job. Life felt easy for once. You were happy.
With this third battle came many more risks and uncertainties. Obviously you’re running out of treatment options and this time you are really fighting for your life. Not to mention all this is happening during a global pandemic. As if having cancer wasn’t isolating enough now you’re really on your own. The support you had before is now a possible danger to your health. Instead of someone holding your hand during chemo you’re forced to video chat. Human connection and touch becomes something you crave.
Chemo goes on for months and as you grow weaker you begin to lose your spark and finally give into some of the grief and fear you feel, you no longer are able to protect the feelings of the people who care for you, it’s too much work. For the first time you allow them to see how hard this really is. It’s a shock to most since you’ve always fought with a smile. Now there’s tears and not much motivation to get well. But you continue on. You give up whatever control you thought you had left. Your doctor is running the show now. She makes all the decisions. You show up, get treatment, get sicker and repeat. Taking care of yourself is a full time job.
After months of treatment when you think you can’t handle one more thing, it’s time for your second stem cell transplant. You knew it was coming but as it approaches memories of the last one rush in. This time you know it will be much harder and the complications could be life threatening. It would be so much easier to throw in the towel at this point. Your weak both physically and mentally and feel like you’ve already lost the fight but something inside gives you just the little push you need. And the voice in your head keeps saying “your kids need you”.
A month long hospital stay in total isolation is not for the faint of heart. In between the tests and complications and knocking on death’s door you found some comfort in the silence. Almost an awakening.
Self-compassion! It’s very easy to become resentful of your body when you feel like it keeps failing you. Learning to be kind to yourself is the biggest lesson you needed to learn this time around. As hard as this has been, it truly is only a moment in your journey. Another opportunity to shape who you’re supposed to be. A reminder to live fully and love hard.
You used to say you didn’t survive cancer to be unhappy. But you’ve learned that happiness isn’t earned or something you can achieve. Happiness is a choice. You can be happy even with cancer.
This post is brought to you by Servier Pharmaceuticals
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.