Sunday, February 23, 2014

Life After Cancer x2

So I finally feel like I am progressing forward and I am paddling further and further away from that island I call Cancer. Kinda like when you are driving away from some place and you keep looking back - watching it get smaller and smaller until it completely disappears from sight. Of course I can still see it and I know it will be there for a very long the background of my life - but I am finally allowing myself to make plans for the future without fear and am able to talk about things I never let myself say out loud. It really is hard to believe that as I approach my 3rd Cancerversary next week, I am in a good place. It is impossible not to look back over the past three years and not think about all the things that have happened and how those experiences have dramatically altered who I am, how I look and how I live my life today. It´s mind blowing really when you allow yourself to process everything.

Many people make huge life changes after surviving a cancer diagnosis. They quit their job and open their dream B&B in Tuscany or they adopt a completely organic clean lifestyle in every way. Despite the fact that I still eat sugar obsessively (often before 7am!), haven´t thrown caution the wind and followed my dreams and still worry about everything big and little, I am definitely a different person from the woman who walked into that hospital room nearly three years ago. I have learned many lessons and things about myself, about those around me and about life in general. The list is long but if I could highlight the biggest things they would be these:

Time is really the most valuable commodity we have. It doesnt stop for anyone no matter how much money or power you have so use it wisely. And don´t put off doing the things you really want to do. No one ever said on their deathbed - Damn I wish I would have worked more!

Forgive those you love if they have hurt you because at this stage of life, people aren´t going to change that much more so we need to accept them for who they are and enjoy the time we have with them.

Don´t make the people you love feel guilty because everyone is doing the best they can. There is never malice in love so don´t expect the worst in people you know only want the best for you.

Always acknowledge others pain and offer empathy.  There is nothing worse then feeling like others dont get how awful you feel - something especially key for those who are chronically ill. I often feel that not a day passes where I don´t have pain or feel poorly and I know it must be frustrating to hear about it all the time but it is also important to recognise how frustrating it is for me too. Not feeling acknowledged just makes one feel worse. I ain´talking about catering to every whimper but just try listen.

Even though you can be afraid of something, silence is far worse then simply letting someone know you are there for them despite not knowing what else to say. Words aren´t always important - but knowing that you aren´t alone is what matters most. I know cancer and serious illness can scare people to the point where they cant even talk about it and want to just run away but think about how you would want to be treated if you were in the same situation. Just validating that this person is going through something intense and difficult is enough - as is a simple "how are you." Ignoring the elephant in the room doesn´t make it disappear.

My bullshit meter is significantly lower then it used to be. I just can´t fake my way through things anymore. When I am angry, I am angry and I will most likely tell you about it and then want to move past it to a better place again.

Grieving loss isn´t just about losing a person.I am grieving the loss of my own innocence, the loss of my two breasts and what I define as feminity, the loss of just being a new mother, the loss of a future without fear of an early death and the loss of a life that I always dreamed I would have. Cancer constantly changes the goal posts and you must adjust your dreams and expectations accordingly. When I thought about the life that I would be living today 4 years ago - I never could have imagined that it would be what it is now. Of course there are wonderful parts of it but I am still grieving many things that I feel have been taken away from me through this experience. Like the fact that I will never have a normal body ever again or that I don´t really know what this cancer will decide to do.

Marriage is not easy. It isn´t easy for anyone (and people are lying if they say otherwise) and it is infinitely harder when you throw an extra set of obstacles into the mix - like moving to a new country, having a baby and then living through cancer together twice - all in less then 5 years. Talk about intense. Cancer has really enabled me to uncover the truths about how to keep a marriage alive. When roles shift from husband and wife to patient and care giver, it really upsets the balance and can be challenging to find your way back. The focus is on the sick person and that can be difficult for the one who must be the rock, the support, the one who has to keep everything ticking over and is rarely asked how they are doing. Many relationships get infected by this disease just as it infects the body and never make it back. You just can never put off the needs of each other regardless of what is going on in your lives. Each person needs to feel loved, listened to and acknowledged - regardless of how tired, frustrated and fed up you are.

Anger. Cancer has made me so much angrier. I get angry at people, situations and things and I am far more vocal about it. Some of it comes from my anger over what has happened to me and how unfair it all has been and I guess it has spiralled out into other aspects of my life. When I see others just not getting the big picture or lacking perspective on things, I want to shake them into reality again. This is not always welcomed as one might imagine but I can´t help doing it. We all complain about so many things and in the process, stop being able to see the really awesome things in our lives. It isn´t about who owes you what (am not talking about money here) or what you feel entitled to, because if you have that viewpoint in the first place, no one will want to do anything for you and you will just become more miserable. It isn´t about what you haven´t done for someone but rather the things that you have done. And it isn´t about the things you do wrong but again - what you have done right. We look for the negatives so often and are so overly critical of ourselves and those in our lives. It is just a sucky way of living and I just can´t be around that negativity as much anymore. Best thing to do is to focus on what is right in your life and you will probably be alot happier because of it.

Being a Mom. Cancer has made me into the most amazing mother that I could have ever imagined being. I put every ounce of energy that I have into being the best version of myself for her. It doesnt matter how awful I have felt or how terrified I have been, I made sure that I was just there for her. In every moment. Cancer took alot from me but it also gave me the gift of extra time with her and it created such an unbelievable relationship and bond between us. She accepts me for who I am and understands without me having to explain. I am her mother. I love her. I brought her into this world with breasts that nourished her and now I no longer have them and to her that is perfectly okay. For her the most important thing is that her mother is here for her every night to tuck her into bed, read her a story, kiss her and tell her I love her to the moon and back.

So my treasure chest of knowledge and insight that I have been able to take away from the single most horrific experience of my life is endless and worth its weight in gold. Maybe that is one of the biggest lessons I have learned...That there is always something good to be taken from every experience you live through or survive, be it good or bad. You just have to be able to see it.

Three years on, two diagnoses later and I am still here...a better version of myself.

Go hug the people you love.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Long Road Back

This may be a new record - days short of a full month without an entry! I think after my last one which was so massive and epic, I needed time to let it all sink in and process. Hearing that news was such a shock and signalled the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Both my husband and I took some time out  to adjust to the news as we had both prepared for such a very different outcome. No one wants to hear bad things but when you think something is going one way, it can rattle you to hear something else. That is one of the many things I have learned from my waltz with cancer - it totally fucks with your head and makes you react the opposite of normal. You can feel slightly lost because suddenly you actually need to get on with your life. No more pauses or stops, I have to pick up the pieces of my life again and start rebuilding the foundation  brick by brick.It can be scary too - cancer can also be comforting in a weird way because of the routine nature of it and the lack of expectations. When you have cancer, people expect very little of you and let´s face it - people are extra nice to you and put very few demands on you, and that can be quite nice. Now that everyone knew that I was cancer free did my cancer safety net disappear like all those cancer cells did? I know and all those cancer survivors know that my journey to recovery is still far from over and just because the cancer is gone, the person I was before may never return fully. The treatments I have been through, two rounds so close together, ravages your body and my doctors have said I may never be the same again. We don´t know but I know the limitations my body still has and I worry that others will quickly forget that the healthier and better I look. I hate myself alittle as I read that last sentence back because it sounds so weak and cowardly. Like I am already making excuses and still living through my cancer even though I dont have it anymore. A very dear old friend perhaps put my thoughts to words best when she wrote this to me last month before we even knew everything was okay:

"Know that when that scan comes back clear, only then will you allow yourself to move past the "girl with cancer" phase of your life behind and be who you are now. But you don´t have to entirely leave her behind as she´s made you who you are today...Nor do you have to leave behind all your friends, support team and other methods of support that have gotten you through this phase. As the next phase of life develops, other support systems will come into your life and the cancer ones will fall further and further back into the periphery. You don´t have to automatically be completely without them. Right now you can´t imagine life without them as they have been your life. But just look at how well you´ve adapted to and thrived in all other phases of your life. New phases brought new wonders into your life. The only reason you dont know who you will be when that scan come sback clear is because you haven´t allowed yourself to dream it yet. But know that you will know what to do and who you want to be. You will walk down that road and it will be more than interesting enough to keep us all reading. "

She really captured it all so perfectly and so eloquently. Just some of the many reasons why I love her.

After nearly a month, the dust has settled and I am allowing myself to be more excited about the future. I cannot tell you the joy I took in walking into work and telling everyone (with 100% honesty) that I was cancer free. It felt good and I felt like I could finally allow myself to rebuild that part of my life without worry for the tomorrows. When I told my daughter that mommy was better and that she wouldnt be going to the hospital too often from now on, I felt genuinely relieved. I had bought myself more time - time where I didn´t need to worry about whether I would be here for her. And spending time in Canada with my family was just priceless. The best trip I had perhaps ever had back.  It had been years since we had all been together (well before the cancer crap hit) and it was so fitting that the first time we were all reunited, we were also able to celebrate my remission. Many glasses were raised - despite my taking about 2 hours to finish a single glass! Oh how times have changed. :) I could see the relief in my family´s eyes especially my mom´s who I think was so terrified by how ill I was the last time she saw me. Of course she never showed her fear to me but I knew it was there. I am her baby and she is my mother - no mother should see her baby suffer. And my Cancierge - he is happy with the news but also adjusting to a new normal. I think we often forget how affected others are by the cancer experience and he has been my loyal partner in crime through it all though rarely showing his stripes. He never had to tell me because I knew how scared he was of losing me. Thankfully I hope we have many many years left together to make up for the last few years of hell.

I know this is one hurdle overcome in a long, long race and that we are still very far from the finish line. However it is a noted victory that I will never ever forget. Cancer is far too greedy and takes far too many good people so any opportunity to get one over on it, is a victory in my eyes. I just wish so many others had been given the same chance as I am to live again. Cancer is ruthless and wicked. But I wont forget how the odds were stacked against us, the numbers  were not good and no one knew how this would play out - yet we still won. I think this just might have restored my faith in things actually working out. It ain´t all bad.