After Cancer: Who am I now?

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NOTE TO SELF

First the good news. The weather cooled off. It then got hot again, but in the meantime I got my air conditioning fixed. So I am no longer in that airless, claustrophobic place. It is amazing the difference it makes.

And then more good news. Today was my last radiation therapy! I have now had the surgery to remove the cancer, and the boob; I have finished 20 weeks of chemotherapy, and completed five weeks of radiation. I have hormone therapy ahead of me, but that’s a lifetime thing. Well, five to ten years, which is more or less the same as a lifetime. It’s a pill you take, so it doesn’t require daily or weekly doctor’s visits, and you don’t have to put anything off while you are doing it. So I’m kind of done with the cancer treatment itself.

And more good news. Radiation therapy could have been worse. 🙂 At the start of it I was experiencing pain, muscle weakness, and a very inflamed rash. Then one day I woke up and all those things were better. This was right after I’d posted about it on Facebook, so I am happy to give credit to all those wonderful people out there who I know are praying for me, and the one to whom they pray. Since then I’ve had another week’s worth of radiation, and I have a pretty good radiation burn under my arm, and skin irritations on my chest (the field is large because they found cancer in all eleven lymph glands tested), but I’ve definitely heard of worse reactions to radiation.

While I am happy to be finished with all these treatments, I think my overriding reaction is anxiety. This is not unusual I know, because I’ve had other cancer survivors tell me the same thing. The first question is NOW WHAT? I have spent the last nine months of my life working at the job of Cancer Patient. Now I’m at a loss as to what I am supposed to do with my life … along with feeling that I didn’t really accomplish what I meant to accomplish while I was being a Cancer Patient. But that’s kind of a lifelong feeling. I think I will have that feeling until I finish “my book” and get it out there, because I have known since I was six years old that this is what I am supposed to do.

I tend to be a little dense, and in recent times have suffered from a bit of a paralysis. And I’m just confused. Is it too much, God, to ask that you just lay out a path in front of me, shine a light on it, and say “go this way”?

Speaking of God, I do want to take a moment to thank my Pastor, Matt Lacey. At the start of this journey he prayed for me, and in that prayer he talked about God giving me faith for this journey, and used the story of Jesus bidding Peter to walk to him on the water as an illustration. That illustration has stayed with me through this journey, from start to finish. In some of the scariest moments I called up the vision of Jesus reaching out and calling me to walk across the water to him. I remember being surprised at how the water sparkled in the sun as I reached out my hand and stepped toward him, and then suddenly I was not walking on the water but dancing. I danced through a lot of scary places.

Then came the times when I called this vision up, but I could not get out of the boat because I knew I would sink. I did not have the faith to walk on the water. Instead, I sat in the boat, and Jesus sat outside of the boat, and we both held onto the side of it. I said, “Well, you can’t really blame me, can you?” Jesus was silent, just looking at me. There were many meetings like this, scattered in with the days when I didn’t go there at all.

Just a few days ago I brought the vision up again. This time I stepped out of the boat, ready to start dancing again. But I didn’t dance. I knelt.

Yesterday, I stood side by side in the water with Jesus, and together we silently watched the radiation treatment take place.

And today … today I had two visions actually. In one I reached my hand out to Jesus and he turned his back on me. And in the other, I stepped out of the boat, and Jesus took me by the hand, and we turned away together, and began walking together in a new direction. Lord, let this vision be true, because I need to have my hand held for awhile I think, cause I am still kind of weak in the knees. I need a big fat dose of faith and just plain courage. And motivation, and direction. Intelligence, wisdom. Energy.

The second cause of anxiety at the end of cancer treatments is whether or not it is really gone. One of the real blessings in any misfortune is the people who come into your life. That has been true of Michaela’s kidnapping, and that is true of my cancer journey. Many of these people are cancer survivors themselves. But among them are those breast cancer survivors whose cancer has returned. This is always a real risk when you have had advanced breast cancer, as I have. Nor is the five-year remission a real marker, as I have known several people whose cancer has returned between years five and ten, including one beautiful friend who passed away during the course of my treatment.

So what can I do to make certain I my cancer doesn’t return? Take care of myself, eat healthy, exercise. That sounds so simple, and yet can be so hard to do! Sometimes my lack of ability in this area feels almost like an urge to self destruct. But I commit myself to wrestling with this. The evidence specifically points to a diet free of animal products as most likely to prevent cancer. (You can check out the China Study, or I can just tell you that my doctor said so.) I am convinced that this is the healthiest diet, and it is also the diet my soul prefers. I was a vegan before I was diagnosed, but during chemo I found myself sensitized to a lot of vegan staples. Just thinking about them made me nauseous. I haven’t fully recovered from this, but I’ working on it. The other dietary guideline that seems painfully obvious is to avoid sugar. The test used to locate cancer in the body is a PET scan, and it uses irradiated glucose to do this because the cancer cells just gobble that glucose right up! Hello? Youdon’t have to ben an Einstein to put two and two together here. But still, it’s a battle I fight and don’t always win.

During my treatment I got a medical marijuana card, and during my appointment for this, the doctor told me that not only is medical marijuana excellent for relief of symptoms during treatment, marijuana has actually been shown to kill cancer cells through the process of apoptosis. He couldn’t, he said, tell me the correct dosage for this though.

And I use my dōTERRA oils, and nutritional supplements. A friend’s sister, who had Stage IV (incurable) cancer, was unable to tolerate chemotherapy. Instead she used dōTERRA oils and supplements, and ended up cancer free somehow or another. She most specifically credits the use of frankincense on the soles of her feet every day.  You doubt? Here is an article from the National Institute of Health about the use of essential oils in treatment and prevention of cancer: National Institute of Health on Essential Oils and Cancer

I get suggestions in my inbox regularly for other methods of getting rid of cancer, but that’s like listening to everybody’s doctor’s opinion on what you can and can’t do during chemotherapy. When I was getting radiation, the woman whose appointment was right after mine informed me that I was “breaking all the rules.” She said her doctor had told her that she could not wear fingernail polish during chemo or radiation. She’d had the exact same chemo treatments as I’d had, and I said I wore my polish to every appointment and neither my doctor nor my nurses had ever mentioned it. The next week she showed me her polished nails and even slipped off her boots so I could see her colorful toenails. Yay! Freedom to the people! She had also been told she couldn’t wear earrings or bracelets to radiation, while I wore both. You actually you only need to leave your necklace off for breast cancer radiation.

So I imagine that this road of finding out who I am after cancer will be like most others in life, scarier in the anticipation than in the execution. One way or another I will keep putting one foot in front of the other and I will end up on a path. Hopefully it will be the right one, and hopefully I will have the strength to follow it.

Oh, and one last piece of good news! My hair is growing back! Still needs a little more thickness on the top, but all my life I wished for the courage to get my hair cut really, really short. Well, now I have that really, really short haircut, and I just might keep it when all my hair is in!

Meanwhile, thank you all for your prayers and your support through all this. It means more than you can know.

 

Radiation therapy is NOT fun

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I can’t believe I have completed six days of radiation therapy already. That means only 19 days to go. Last treatment is scheduled for September 12th. And I have done nothing that I wanted to do, like take my laptop and go to a coffee shop to write for awhile after therapy. There have been a lot of busy days, a lot of disorganized days, and a number of painful days, but one way or another it just hasn’t happened yet.

But I want to whine a little, even though I know I have no real grounds for whining. Radiation therapy is nowhere near as enjoyable as chemotherapy was. Now I know chemo can be hell for a lot of people, but it wasn’t for me. It was somewhere I went once a week to spend a few hours in a recliner reading, writing, chatting, while being taken care of by the nicest nurses. In contrast, radiation therapy is a rapidly moving assembly line. First, it is every single day. Each session lasts from 15 to 45 minutes depending on whether or not they want ex-rays (which they seem to have wanted more often than not). I not only don’t get a comfortable recliner, I get squished into a cardboard-like mold to hold me still in the most uncomfortable of positions. And I’m not allowed to move. If I wiggle my toes a voice comes through the speaker telling me to keep my foot still.

Note that part about the voice through the speaker. There are two techs who take care of me every day, but that consists of asking my birth date, then tugging me into position on the table while speaking to each other in numbers. “98.” “73.” My primary relationship in this therapy is with a large machine that rotates around me while I lie on a table.

Once I am squished into that position, suddenly I itch in all sorts of places. My wedding ring feels like it has slipped too far down on my finger and really needs to be moved NOW. I suddenly realized that my muscles had been tense, which had lifted my back slightly off the table when they positioned me, and now it really wants to relax. Then even though it’s an open machine, as the larger part revolves to where it is above me, there is a moment of claustrophobic panic. But most of all, it’s uncomfortable. Even though they presumably made this mold around my body the first time I went in, there are ridges where ridges should not be, and there are parts that were just never comfortable to begin with.

Perhaps coincidentally, I developed a pain in my left neck and shoulder around the fourth day of therapy. I will admit I don’t have a high tolerance for pain in the first place, but this is a very painful pain. Occasionally it has been painful enough that it has made me want to vomit. During the day it is somewhat relieved, and even occasionally subsides completely, with large doses of Motrin. But at night it always becomes severe, and is not relieved however much Motrin I take. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep for five days and it has gotten to the point where I am actually afraid to try to sleep, because I don’t want to wake up in pain.

Not due to the radiation, the techs told me. The area of pain is immediately above the area they irradiate but not within the field. But they suggested I tell the doctor when I see him on Friday anyway, which I will. It could be due to spending large amounts of time in unnatural and uncomfortable positions, they said. So maybe I can blame radiation. But on the other hand, it could also be from picking up my grandson wrong, or from sleeping in a strange position. Goodness knows I have tried to figure out how to improve my sleeping position, but that has been difficult considering the fact that moving even a fraction of an inch causes great, shooting pain. I have kind of self diagnosed it as maybe a pinched nerve in my neck, although the muscles were quite tender when my daughter tried to massage the area, and I’m not sure if that would happen with a pinched nerve. But whatever it is, it hurts, and I am tired of it, and when I lie there in those odd positions for radiation, my shoulder starts to hurt and I think, oh no, this is making it worse, but there is nothing I can do about it.

Then, too, I have thought about pain itself. I have thought about those I know who have died of cancer, who have reached excruciating levels of pain in the process of dying. And I think, I can’t even tolerate a little shoulder and neck pain.

So far I have been just as tired from radiation as from chemotherapy, even before the pain in my shoulder started robbing me of my sleep at night. I was taking three or four naps a day before I started being afraid to lie down.

But it’s just a really impersonal treatment. It’s annoying, uncomfortable, and lonely.

I guess it’s going to be up to me to transform the experience. Twenty percent of the treatments are finished now. I hope I don’t waste the rest of this time.