So, it´s been about a year now since I was officially diagnosed as being in remission from cancer. Which, of course, is a joyous statement, but also a nerve-racking one as well. Recently I have spent many a moment contemplating this milestone and wondering if everything is still okay. I´m back into the swing of things at work; which means, I´m back to feeling tired most of the day, feeling nauseous in the morning, and having some pounding fatigue headaches when I get home. Which of course, may just be normal side effects of having a job, but could also be a sign that my immune system is struggling. In addition, I´m having some short-term memory loss, which I can usually play off as me being old, but sometimes can be worrisome. After Jon admitted that he, too, had noticed some of my memory loss, I did some research. Apparently chemo-brain is a real condition, and many people continue to experience these symptoms 1-2 years after treatment. Sometimes the condition worsens and stays with you forever. So far I´ve only not been able to remember little, inconsequential things, but trust me- it´s not fun to be experiencing symptoms of old age at 32.
In addition to the headaches and fatigue, I am having some pain above my left breast: It is particularly tender to the touch in certain places. This, again, could just be a normal side effect of radiation and surgery, but it definitely takes my mind to some not-so- good places. Since the beginning of January I have been doing a physical therapy of sorts on the reconstructed breast. Of course, no one mentioned the need for breast therapy to me before the surgery, but apparently all women with implants need physical therapy afterwards in order to prevent the implant from hardening up under layers of scar tissue. In order to loosen up the scar tissue, the kinesiologist basically manhandles the breast throughout a series of the most painful “massages” I´ve ever had in my life. My kinesiologist is really nice and I like her very much, but wow can that tiny Columbian woman inflict some monster-sized pain with the palms of her hands!! Apparently her job is to figure out what part of the breast is the most disfigured, painful, tight or sore, and try to force the radiated scar tissue that exists there to break apart so the implant can move deeper into the socket. She achieves this by pinching the skin, rotating the implant, violently shaking the skin, or pressing down so deeply onto the skin that she has to stand up and use all of her weight. My job is to grimace, grip the sheets, and attempt to stifle my cries of pain. Luckily, the massages seem to be worth it since I have seen great improvements in the way the breast looks and moves since she started the treatment. Some of my skin now bounces back like real skin, the breast is more rounded and less lumpy looking, and I have increased my nerve sensitivity. There definitely are still some areas, though, that you could hit with a sledge- hammer and I wouldn´t feel a thing. And I will most certainly never be able to wear an outfit without a bra, because the breasts are still not in the same place, nor are they the same size. Last week, I explained to the therapist about the pain I was experiencing on the left-hand side of my chest, and she said that she had felt something there also, but attributed it to something called radiation fibrosis symptom: I´ve attached an article in case you would like to know more… It doesn´t feel like a tumor, it just feels kind of like painful knots deep in the muscle tissue. So, the kinesiologists words were reassuring, but of course, I wasn´t just going to take her word for it: I wanted to see what my doctor had to say about it.
Due to all my summer travel, I hadn´t actually seen my oncologist since January 23rd. Needless to say I was a little worried about my meeting with him this afternoon, since it´s probably about time for me to get some of my post-cancer checkups. Dr. Majlis, however, was his normal, cheery self and examined me and said that if I generally feel good and have no symptoms then there is no reason to get a pet scan. However, he did understand that I was nervous and so he went ahead and scheduled a thorax/ abdomen scan and also a pelvic x-ray. He said it was for my piece of mind. Well, let me tell you- those are going to be some scary exams.
I think what makes this time so nerve-racking for me is that I still can´t figure out why my body responded so well to the treatment. Although I continue to stop myself from reading statistics, I do know that most recurrences of cancer happen within 12-18 months of treatment. How is it that over a year ago, I had cancer coursing throughout my entire body and yet now I am perfectly fine? It just doesn´t seem right. And also it doesn´t seem likely. It´s not like I dedicated my life to finding what foods would be most healthy for a recovering cancer patient. I didn´t stop drinking, I didn´t switch to organic fruits and vegetables, and I didn´t cut out red meat. I didn´t juice, or cleanse, or remove dairy from my diet. In addition, I am subjecting my body to some very powerful drugs every three weeks, which I know is not good for me. For example, Herceptin is known to be extremely tough on the heart and my cardiologist expressed disbelief during my last exam that my doctor was planning on giving me Herceptin for the rest of my life. “Oh no,” he shook his head disapprovingly. “that´s not good for the heart.” Well, honestly who really knows what is worse: possibly getting a heart attack, or possibly having the cancer return. Tough Call! When I brought this fear up to the doctor, he once again told me the story of his one patient who has been on Herceptin for 10 years and is perfectly healthy, so… there´s that to pin my hopes on, I guess.
I think the not knowing is possibly the most difficult part about being a cancer survivor, especially when your cancer was severe. It makes it hard for me to make long-term plans, because I never can be sure what even the immediate future is going to bring. How can I think about adopting a child or moving to a new country or retirement if I have no clear vision of what my life will be like next month? I could go into the doctor again after the tests, and find out that my health is in jeopardy again. Or I could go in and they could say I´m fine.
Some people may say, “Well- everybody has this same problem of not knowing what the future will bring. Why are you so worried?¨ And I get it- I could die in a car wreck or get hit by lightning, or my plane could mysteriously disappear over the Indian Ocean. You never know what´s going to happen, but it sure is scary! Don´t worry: I don´t think about death on a daily basis and I certainly don´t let it stop me from living my life. But sometimes, just sometimes, it hits me and I am overwhelmed with sadness. Did you know that every single day over 20,000 people die of cancer worldwide? It seems like every week, someone that I know is newly diagnosed: my best friend´s grandmother, a co-worker, my mom´s best friend, a former teacher, a student´s mother…. The list goes on and on. And you can forget about watching movies or TV shows, or reading books, or browsing on the Internet, because cancer is there too. Sadly, it´s everywhere. According to an article I read on CNN, (oops-I guess I broke my no reading statistics rule) the chances of someone dying of cancer these days are 1 in 5. One in FIVE! Cancer has now surpassed heart disease as the leading killer in the United States. And believe me, those mortality rates are much higher if you ever had cancer in the past. So, as you can see, I have a lot to worry about. But, on the other hand, why worry? I know that if I get cancer again I will just have to deal with it. I will have no other choice. The more I dread it, the worse it will be if it does come true. In short, I think what I´m trying to say is that I should go to bed now and think happy thoughts. I should plan my future as though I were any other person who´s life has not been affected by this disease. Some days it is going to be tough, but hopefully I´ll just keep on being a cancer survivor and adding more candles to my celebratory cancer remission cakes.