Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It´s Back to Work I Go!

It´s official: Friday, July 12th, I finished active treatment for stage four breast cancer!!! After eight cycles of chemotherapy, a mastectomy surgery, 25 days of radiation, and ten months of emotional hell, I can now focus on putting cancer in my rear view mirror and attempt to regain a sense of normalcy in my life. I am officially a breast cancer survivor!!!! Of course Jon and I celebrated the occasion, along with my 32nd birthday, but the event, on the whole, was rather anticlimactic. Although I am extremely happy to be done with the chemo and radiation, the disease has forever changed my life, and I will never really be done with treatment.
I will always have a chemo port sticking up under my collarbone, I will always have a giant scar under my armpit, and I will still need to go in to the hospital every three weeks for blood work, check-ups with my oncologist, and antibody treatments FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE…. The antibody drugs carry no side effects, so that´s good, but the problem is that from here on out, I will have to plan my life around these treatments, which take five hours minimum, and can only be done in the city in which I am residing. This means that I have to be very careful about planning my vacations and scheduling the times that I am out of the country so that it corresponds with the weeks that I am not having my treatment. For example, I figured out that if I continued doing my treatments on Fridays, I would have been scheduled to do a treatment on January 17th, the weekend of my wedding in Mexico. Not ideal…. Luckily I can fudge and shift the days of the treatment for a few days in either direction without it being a big deal, so I can sort of work around any potential conflicts, as long as I know them far enough in advance. I (somewhat jokingly) asked my doctor when they would be able to give me the antibodies in pill form so I can take them wherever I want, and he basically replied, “Stop your bitching. At least you are here to take the medicine!” Okay, okay: he didn´t say that exactly, but I know that´s what his half smile/ half shrug meant. So pretty much that´s my new default mode whenever I feel like complaining about something: “It´s gotta be better than being dead, so I just need to shut up about it and deal.” Which can be a helpful and stress-relieving mantra in many ways, but also is very difficult to pull off. Let´s face it, human beings like to complain (or at least I do) and I´m sure Jon would say I´m not doing a very good job at reducing my number of complaints… haha!
In other big news, last week I returned to work to begin the 2013-2014 school year. So far it has gone well and I know that I will be very happy in middle school. I like the energy; I like the creativity; I like the devotion to professional development. The kids are so much younger than I remembered, but also very curious about learning which is nice. No one has rolled their eyes at me yet and asked why they have to do such and such assignment. But I must say, that preparing to return to the classroom gave me quite a few weeks of anxious moments. This is because, after nine months of basically sitting on my ass, returning to my normal life again poses a number of challenges. In preparation for the school year, I cleaned out my closet to find what clothes I needed to begin afresh. Since I have not worn work clothes in close to a year and have been living in one pair of jeans and hooded sweatshirts for most of the fall and winter, this was not a fun task. Although I am losing some weight, I certainly do not fit into the six pairs of size four work pants that I own. In addition, all of my size small tops are extremely snug and uncomfortably tight around my left arm where I had the surgery. Let´s not forget the undergarments… since reconstruction has not yet begun I am having trouble finding a bra to wear. Since the surgery, I have mainly been going without one except for a brief number of special occasions. In the end I decided to just stuff one side of the bra until the doctors make them even again. But it´s not very comfortable and is most certainly the first item of clothing I remove when I get home in the evenings. Luckily the Chilean Gap carries the same “Curvy” work pants as in the United States so I was able to solve my clothing dilemma.
And then there was the question of what to do with my hair: I do have hair again- just not very much of it… It definitely is not long enough to style, has a weird texture, and is a strange, ashen brown color. Some people have urged me to just go without the wig when school starts so the kids can get used to my short hair from the very beginning. Unfortunately, I´m still not that comfortable with my appearance to do that. As a woman, I know we are judged on how we look and I want to look as good as I possibly can, and if that means I have to still wear the wig, then I´m going to wear the wig. I wish I could be brave like many of the older women who go to their hospital appointments bald or with patches of thin, post-chemo coifs, but I don´t think I´m quite ready. When people look at me I don´t want them to think about cancer and the horrible events of the past year, but to just treat me normally. Once I have a legitimate hairstyle a la Anne Hathaway or Michelle Williams, then I will be proud to throw off the wig and bare my head to the world, but that might be another month or two before that can happen. Jon insists that other people don´t care about my hair and that I´m the only one worried about it. And that may be true, but throughout this journey I´ve done my best to hide how the disease has affected me physically, so why would I stop now?
So those are the more superficial issues I´ve had to deal with. Obviously returning to work carries some serious emotional ramifications as well. I am thrilled to pieces that a maternity position opened up in the middle school in social studies and that everyone has been so welcoming to me. I was very nervous that I would feel strange, or out of place, or not really needed. I most certainly didn´t want people looking at me with pity, and luckily nobody has. Knowing what to say to someone when they return from something traumatic is always difficult. Basically you have three options. You could choose to address the elephant in the room and risk upsetting the person. Or you could kind of tiptoe around the subject by asking nicely, “How are you doing?” and plastering a big smile on your face. Or you could choose to ignore the “C” word completely and just talk about other things like summer vacations or students or lesson plans. Of course, there are also people who probably have no idea what happened last year and so they go about their daily lives and don´t say anything at all.
I realize it is human nature to avoid conflict, and so, for the most part, people have chosen to go with options B and C, which is fine with me. I, too, have always been one to avoid conflicts at all costs. If there is a difficult conversation to be had, I am usually the first to sweep it under the rug, gloss over it, or attempt to shrug my way out of it. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do this with something as life altering as a diagnosis of stage four cancer, so I am having trouble coming to grips with my new reality. It´s not as if I want people to talk to me about cancer every day; but, in a way, not talking about it at all makes me feel like I lead a secret life. I am both Ms. Timms, 7th grade social studies teacher, and Eli, cancer survivor. It can be difficult to juggle these two separate identities. For instance today I had to leave school early for my antibody treatment and I was hoping I didn´t run into anyone because then I would have to explain where I was going. And then they might worry that I´m still sick, and then I would have to go into details about the difference between chemo and Herceptin, and then they might start treating me differently. So here I am after a long day at work, getting my life-saving medicine dripped in, and waiting until the five hours are over so I can go home and relax for the day.
The other day I had another one of those out of body experiences that I have been having since learning about my disease. After my first day back at school, dressed in my heels and surrounded by kiddoes asking the usual first day questions like, “Can I borrow a pen?”, it almost felt as if I never left. It´s as though I blinked and none of the horrible things of last year took place and that life is just the same as it always was. And sometimes while I´m laughing at some joke in the teacher´s lounge during lunch I can fool myself into actually believing it. But of course that isn´t true… I DID have cancer, it was very serious, and I am damn lucky to be here.
I know I have to face the reality that I am never going to live a normal life like everyone else lucky enough to be healthy. For instance, my radiologist just told me that I´m NEVER going to be able to do exercise with my left arm because of my risk of lymphedema. That means no lifting weights, no kickboxing, no pilates, no yoga, no push ups, no cross fit… none of it, EVER…. I know most of you are thinking, “So what??? I don´t enjoy doing those things anyway”… But for most of my life, I was a very active person. I enjoy lifting weights, I enjoy kickboxing, I generally like using my left arm. I know it´s not the end of the world and I´ll be able to find other ways to exercise, but it´s still kind of a blow. Even when wedding planning, I can´t really pretend to be normal. Most brides-to-be usually don´t have to worry about explaining to the wedding dress sales person why they are wearing a wig or why one of their breasts is missing, but I do. Usually brides don´t have to research how many months it takes for post-chemo hair to grow. They also don´t have to worry if their breast reconstruction will be done in time to fill out the strapless gown they have purchased. But this is part of my new reality as a survivor.
One of the most difficult things about trying to return to normal life is figuring out how to react when cancer is mentioned in a movie, or in a book, or in a conversation, or in a news article, or in one of the many places that it frequently arises. Most people just breeze over it because the word “cancer” doesn´t carry any personal meaning for them. Unfortunately I tense up every time I hear it. If the word is being mentioned, it means that either someone is dying of cancer, suffering from cancer, or something is being described negatively as “a cancer”. Either way, it brings me to a dark place. For at least ten minutes afterward I can´t help but think of the statistics for stage four patients: less than 5% of people make it past five years… and it makes me very sad and nervous about the future. I´ve now reached a point where I can envision myself living my life at least until January 19th, but until I get another clean pet scan result, I won´t be able to think a lot further than that.
So in short, returning to normal life as a cancer survivor is both a tremendous blessing and a curse I wouldn´t wish on anyone. On the one hand, it means that I won´t take one mundane day of hitting the alarm, getting dressed, driving to school, teaching classes full of acne-scarred twelve year olds, driving home, making dinner, and walking the dogs for granted. I love being part of real life again. I like going to sleep knowing that there is a reason I need to wake up in the morning. On the other hand, it also means that I have a mental battle to fight pretty much every day, and most of it is going to be done solo. No one wants to hear about cancer day in and day out, and to be frank, neither do I. But I also can´t pretend to be someone I´m not. Cancer is, and forever will be, a part of me. I just hope that I can use my experience for good and that I will be able to help others who´ve faced a similar situation get through it. Everyone has a cross to bear, and this is mine. I´m glad I have this blog to share my feelings with. It is a tremendous relief.

5 comments

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  1. Julie Kaifesh

    I am so glad you have this blog, too. It is so good to hear how you are doing and how you are feeling. I hope getting back to work helps you feel like you are returning to something closer to normal. Thank you for keeping us all “in the loop”!
    Love, Julie K

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  2. Ashley

    I love the entry, Timmsy. It’s enlightening to learn a little about what it really feels like to have dealt with cancer…and to know you always will deal with cancer.
    Love you,
    StanB

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  3. Frances Williams

    Hi Eli,
    You’re doing the job I did last year for Tiffany’s class. I think you’re going to love it – I did anyway. Phew – reading your blog is mind blowing. I so admire your strength. I never realized or thought about all the things that come along with having cancer. It seems like an ever-ending list. And even all your dilemmas about your hair, what to wear, etc. I can relate to that on a VERY small scale, in that when I went back to work, finding suitable clothes was a problem for me too. I only had really fancy reception stuff or sweatpants, jeans, shorts and sandals – nothing in between. And what I did have didn’t fit me either as I’d put on weight. I have to say, though, that you look incredible – it seemed like you always did, even through all your chemo, etc. You are lucky in that you are so naturally beautiful. I’d look like hell in a bandana!
    Thanks for writing the blog and good luck with your classses.
    Much love, Frances xx

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  4. Sissy

    I love you sissy and definitely understand so many things about what you wrote in this blog entry. In fact I was watching a re-run of The Kardashians (yes, I know all you people reading this post are probably rolling your eyes) but in the episode one of the family members has a cancer scare. Sure enough it brought back so many thoughts and emotions and I was bawling. In fact I am pretty sure this will happen for the rest of my life when I hear about true stories of the Big “C.” So many times I find myself reflecting on the past year and can’t believe how amazing the outcome has been. I will never forget and it will always be with me as well. All I know is that life cannot be taken for granted and I hope that is what any one who read this blog or has been a part of your life in any way, shape, or form would realize. Enjoy your re-entry into the “normalcy” of life. I am always here for you and you don’t have to keep your thoughts on the Big “C” to yourself.

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  5. Jane Chesney

    I hope you will find on-the-job routine therapeutic and fun this year. Keeping up with middle school kids will definitely offer the kind of intellectual and emotional challenges requiring energy, problem solving ability and creativity that you obviously possess in abundance. That school is lucky to have you, for so many reasons.

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