Monday, March 3, 2014

Back to "Normal"

I know the world didn't stop when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. But for a little while, it seemed as though everything slowed down drastically. And a lot of it receded into the background, leaving me with the sense that I was inside a bubble of sorts -- where colors were sharper, feelings were duller and all that really mattered was attacking each step in the process with a smile and my mental pen at the ready to check it off the list. 

It helped me quite a bit to write about it all. Recounting the detail demystified the experience, and finding humor in it when I could defanged it. I had every intention of continuing with that through my radiation, but as I entered that phase of treatment, I suddenly found myself avoiding my writing. Not because the experience was so awful -- more was so mundane. Or I was.

From the week of Thanksgiving through the middle of January, every weekday morning (except the holidays), I got up early and headed over to the hospital for my 7:30 appointment. Sometimes already ready for work, more often, still in sweats and with my hair wet. I got to know the technicians there pretty well, and certainly wasn't worried about looking my best for them. 

Most days, I wore my ladybug bracelet and brought my pink unicorn "Chernobyl" -- both gifts from my friend, Ann -- with me. (Chernobyl usually sat quietly in my purse, but I appreciated his presence nonetheless.)  I'd park in one of the "Cancer Patient" spots (I quickly got over my aversion to that), hurry in past the valet (who always greeted me with a smile and a hello.)  Past the reception desk, with a quick, "I'm here!" to the receptionist, into the dressing room, where I'd select a robe and gown.  I'd change into them quickly, then stuff my top and coat into a cabinet, and wait for one of the techs to come fetch me. They had blankets in a warmer and I took them up on the offer on the coldest of days. Back to "the vault," as I came to think of it, where I'd doff the robe, lower the gown and recline on the table while they lined up my various markings with the machine to make sure I got zapped in the right places. Then the techs would leave the room, and the heavy vault door would close and seal. The machine would whir and do its zapping. And then the techs would return, help me up, help me re-robe (almost always with a static-electric shock -- it became a game for Kevin and me to see if we could avoid shocking one another), and send me on my way.  

My boob developed a noticeable tan line -- a solid dark square which framed it. Eventually, the skin on my chest became sensitive and itchy -- like a heat rash or sunburn. Lotion helped, but I was glad once I knew I was in the home-stretch.  I had tired days, though not too bad. In the evenings, I fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV frequently -- often with my head resting on David's shoulder. He didn't seem to mind, and I'm grateful he was there to hold my hand through it all. I don't think I'd have handled it nearly so calmly, or maintained a positive attitude nearly so well, had he not been there with me. 

During the first few weeks, the days ticked by slowly. From Day 1 to Day 10 seemed like a month. Day 10 to Day 20, more of the same. Then suddenly, I realized I only had ten days left. And I felt the world speed back up. The light at the end of the tunnel began rushing toward me, and I had a brief feeling of anxiety -- what would I do once the routine was gone, and "cancer patient" was no longer part of my identity? 

I'd start getting back to normal, is what. On my last day of treatment, I rang the bell at the nurses' desk. I hugged Kevin and Pam and Kara goodbye and thanked them for their good care of me. I waved goodbye to the receptionist and the valet, and walked out of my cancer cocoon into the sunshine.  

The next day, I marveled at the joy of watching my daughter board the bus -- something I hadn't done in almost two months. I didn't realize until that moment how much worry I'd carried with me each day, leaving the house before her and hoping she'd manage to get herself out the door and on the bus without my prodding. (She did!) 

I resumed getting ready just for work, and not the hospital, too. I gave Chernobyl a place of honor on my dresser and stopped carrying him around with me. I changed my Twitter bio to include "#BreastCancerSurvivor".  My tan line receded -- it's barely visible now -- and my energy picked up. I suddenly found myself tackling chores I'd been avoiding, and getting organized. 

I've now been done with treatment almost as long as it lasted. And life is pretty well back to normal,, though it's a new "normal."  I look at things differently. People, too. I feel like my experience, as relatively not-horrible as it was, afforded me a brief glimpse or two behind life's curtain, and helped me refocus on what's important. It shaped me and became an unexpected part of who I am and, as strange as it may seem, I'm grateful for it. 

Today happens to be Triple Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Triple Negative is an aggressive form of breast cancer -- one which doesn't respond as readily to conventional treatments, and tends to strike younger women. I posted a link about it earlier today and a friend relayed to me an acquaintance of hers has had it spread to her brain. She's a young mother of four, and the prognosis is bleak. So, please, say a prayer for her tonight, if you would. And for all those affected by this disease. My encounter with it wasn't so bad, but I know the love and prayers sent my way did wonders.  So, thank you -- you helped me never lose sight of just how very blessed I've been. 

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