At the end of radiation therapy last year, I was one exhausted woman. I’d gained twenty pounds (a cookie? why not a BOX of cookies?), and I felt estranged from myself. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, and felt like I’d failed people and myself because of my difficulty even getting up in the morning. It’s hard to admit I felt this way, because I believe that admitting things like this can make you sink even deeper into them. (On the other hand, admitting it to yourself, and people you trust is a good thing — particularly if you do it while trying to figure out how to get over it.) Although I had the incredible good luck to dodge more difficult breast cancers, it is still the case that an experience like this knocks you down.
And I am here to report, on the other side of it all, as my surgeon said at my checkup yesterday, that life is not the same now. My children are not the same people — they know I’m not invincible. Like all things, that’s good and bad. In the beginning, they clung more than they used to and seemed more reluctant than other children to be independent. But I can see them relinquishing their hold on me, and feeling more confident that I’m not going anywhere. We don’t talk about it very often — they don’t like to be reminded — but I have concluded that although you cannot control what happens to you sometimes, you are in charge of how you handle it and so the best I can do is show them, through example, how you recover from a physically difficult experience:
A year out, these are the results of my recovery efforts:
Personal training. Huge success. I love going, love having someone keep track of my progress, show me the right way to do things. Hugely expensive too! I’ve reduced the number of sessions, and started training on my own. Really, it didn’t have to be this expensive choice. Any kind of regular physical endeavor — as long as you keep it up and try to challenge yourself so you can see progress — is one of the best things you can do to get over seeing yourself as diseased. And even if you don’t think of yourself that way, it is one of the best things you can do anyway. So do it.
Writing. I entered my novel in a contest — it was a finalist — and now I’m looking for an agent. And I’m sending short stories out. (And writing them too!) Some interest. Enough. The lesson here? Throw yourself into the thing you most love doing. Make that garden grow. Build that boat. Join that choir.
Travel. I must have decided, at some level, that the world must be seen. I’ve said yes to every trip everyone has proposed: Hawaii? Sure, I’ll come to your conference. Italy: ditto. France and England: absolutely. Lovely. The lesson here? Do not put things off. I know this is a cliche. But NOW really is the time.
Practice gratitude. Say thank you again and again to people for the things they do for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s cancer-related or not. For some reason, letting people know that they matter is such a healing thing to do. And it keeps you from becoming a grouch.
But life’s not all a big plus. There is more residual anxiety than I’d thought. Yesterday at my six month mammogram I realized that I could get bad news again. And my heart sank. I worried. It was fine. But the worry is still there.
There’s nothing to do, of course, but to keep going, and to keep going in directions that make you and your loved ones happy. That’s really the story of one year out.