Few things knock me off my apple cart; really, I am able to teeter, to totter, and to maintain some sense of balance with most of life’s curve-balls aimed straight at my head. With each blow that makes contact with my emotional well-being, I may wobble for a while but very rarely is the instance in which I completely fall down. When I do fall down, I fall hard – usually face first into the concrete-hard truth of reality.
In “The Strongest Girl I Know”, I described the day my best childhood friend was diagnosed with leukemia. Never for one figment of a moment did I doubt that Karen would beat her form of cancer. I *KNOW* she will come out stronger than before (yes, that IS possible, as I am living proof myself). Karen has recently finished her cancer treatment and will be place on a maintenance program for two more years. She is currently in what I have personally named the “transitional phase” of her cancer experience.
For those of you not in the cancer world itself, the “transitional phase” is what I deem the absolute hardest. Many cancer survivors will tell you that it is so hard to be done with treatment – everyone assumes you are okay and they move on, seemingly forgetting about you and what you just went through. You have an overwhelming range of emotions that often times makes you feel crazy for feeling such diverse and intense thoughts. For me, personally, after my breast cancer battle, I did not struggle with this aspect as I was more than ready to get on with my life, my *new* normal, and put the cancer behind me. Or so I thought.
New Normal? What the heck is that?
What doctors do not necessarily tell you is about survivor-ship and all the emotions that come with paving your way in a world that is not quite like your pre-cancer world; nor is your brand new beginnings as *glorious* as one would expect when given a “second chance” at life. As Karen begins her survivor-ship and careens through her transitional phase, I am once again reminded of the tumultuous hike ahead and awful emotions that surface therein.
About a year after my treatment wrapped up, I began feeling intense emotions:
- Anger <man, was I pissed off!>
- Sadness <how is the world this sad that it takes young people prematurely from their loved ones?>
- Fear <how would I identify and thrive in a “new” normal with such bodily limitations and at times, crippling fear of recurrence?>.
Five years later, I had personally arrived at a spot where I had resolved *some* of the emotional intensity and I had learned to cope with *some* of my limitations, but only as a mere matter of acceptance. My neat and tidy apple cart was first really tipped hard last October when Karen called me to tell me she now had cancer. The past months I have spent picking up my apples and placing them back in their respective places. Until Karen’s transitional phase, that is……..how does one watch a best friend go through a similarly horrid experience with cancer? How does one prep her friend for the toughest mental part of the so-called “journey” post-cancer?
I *love* that Karen now understands and relates to so many emotions that I personally struggled with. I feel more equipped to be there for her and listen to her as she gives examples of the emotional onslaught she currently faces. I offer examples and stories of how I writhed with similar thoughts or how I chose to handle ignorant comments. Yet, my heart is sad that Karen has to experience so many of these instances as she continues on her path to ultimate health.
Recently, when Karen called me flabbergasted that someone would say such a callous statement to her, I felt empathy for her pain. I also felt a weird sense of déjà vu as my memories circled back around to those ill-timed statements delivered to me just a few years back.
Not only am I having a WTF moment for her, but I am chuckling at the WTF moments of my past. For example, “Boy, I should get cancer so that I can lose weight!” or “Whoa, I need me some chemo so I can get rid of my period!” are two of my *least* favorite lines, delivered by a loved one during my treatment. How do you explain to someone that you understand they honestly do not wish to get cancer? <REALLY?!?!> Or rather, the mere idea of getting rid of your period by going through MONTHS of poisoning via chemo is not only repulsive, but that is the most insensitive and ridiculous thing you could say to a cancer patient in the throes of their treatment! (Karen and I have enough material to create a free-standing book of its own with more examples! Stay tuned.)
In the cancer world, you honestly do not know if you will live or die – you just do not. Sure, the doctors give you a fairly optimistic prognosis, but ultimately, they do not know for certain and that is very scary. The treatments make you sick……not just sick, but SICK. No amount of vomiting, diarrhea, mouth sores, excessive fatigue, horrific bone pain or more will justify the need to ever lose weight or get rid of your period.
Telling a cancer patient they look good is equally *offensive* because what you are really saying is that we do not look *as sick* as you expected, or that you have nothing else to say so you will say that. I believe I said it to Karen once at a hospital visit when she was particularly sickly feeling – and I instantly kicked my own ass (albeit in my head).
In talking to another friend whose neighbor has recently been diagnosed with cancer, I find myself getting defensive and riled up about those who *think* they know best for the one with cancer. Empowerment has never been more critical to a newly diagnosed patient; let them make their treatment decisions on what is best for THEM. What is best for YOU may not be the best for THEM. The strong-armed advice that the newly diagnosed should consider holistic and all-natural treatment as opposed to the medical experts’ advice of engaging in a strong protocol, a proven regiment of drugs that gives us a 70, 80 or 90% survival rate is just plain hard to swallow. We appreciate your *concern* but a simple, “What can I do for you?” are the simplest, yet, strongest words you may ever deliver to a cancer patient. Five years it took me to come to this reality; and boy, will I advocate for those in my presence to ensure they are empowered in the decisions that affect their bodies.
Sensitive much? Yes, I am.
Karen and I faced our cancer diagnoses with similar ado: bring it bitch. We moved so quickly into our warrior phase, determined to beat the tarnation out of our respective cancers that we chose to deal with our emotional journeys as best as we can/could. Even as much as Karen has shared, I cannot even begin to fathom the thoughts she has and how she copes with the angst. I offer my ears and my words in hope that I bring her some sense of consolation; whether by helping her feel *normal* in these overwhelming emotions or by helping her to identify some ways of coping that work for her. Again, what may have worked for me may or may not work for Karen. Only she has the ability to ascertain what mechanisms are best for her.
As we move Karen into the next phase beyond the transitional phase (finding her new normal), I find myself on yet another unexpected ride of my own emotional cataclysm:
- Damn, I am pissed – why, oh why did she have to go through this?
- WTF, I am angry – why did Jackie, Cara, Donna, and Tony, to name just a few, lose their battles so young?
- URG, I am sad – each time I see Jackie’s daughter or pictures of Cara’s children my heart strings tighten and make me take a deep, cleansing breath to absolve my mind of the sorrow.
- I am sadder yet to talk to more newly diagnosed, or to acknowledge the grim reality of those with chronic cancers that will…NOT….be….cured.
- BOOM, I am motivated – to continue to advocate, to research, to raise money and make a F*cking difference in this world so that no one else has yet to battle a form of cancer.
Enough! ENOUGH ALREADY.
I cycle back around to myself and place a gentle reminder that I need to be sure I take care of me. After all, I have three munchkins whose lives depend upon having their Momma in it. Another deep cleansing breath, some perspective re-alignment, and better choices for how I pursue my days ahead and the very moment I am within.
Deep breath. Brush myself off. Pick up my apple cart and we continue along the path of the Unexpected Ride. These are my moments; my moments to be present within and all I will do is watch for incoming curve balls. With each passing moment, these tangents of life are navigated and cushioned using the tools that have come from the blows before. Life is full of a multitude of lessons learned; and I do know that my apple cart will soon be back up again.