Last week marked two years since I finished chemotherapy for Stage IV breast cancer. I didn’t mark it publicly, didn’t mention it. I didn’t want to. It seemed grandstanding and I don’t go in for that kind of thing.
I marked it in my own way, on my own. I didn’t change my routine, do anything special. I roused from bed, stretching, complaining fitfully with muffled groans, the dog doing her own version of the same. In the bathroom, I splashed my face with cold water, put in my contacts. I stood there at the sink, looking into the mirror. Looking at my face, the years that have been added, lines a little deeper, neck a little looser.
I thought about what kind of shape I had been in, that morning two years prior, how difficult it had been to get out of bed, to dress, to walk, to open the refrigerator. I thought about all of the people who had been a part of my treatment, doing what they could to make things as easy on me as possible. I thought about the dear friend who shepherded me to that last treatment and how difficult that had to have been on her. I couldn’t have been easy to see. But she was there, bright and early, always ready for whatever shape I was in, never batted an eyelash, not even when I asked her to cut my food at our celebration lunch that day. That’s a gift.
I was so thrilled for chemotherapy to be over, I did not care about the next phases of treatment. I didn’t think anything could be as bad as the six months I’d just been through. It felt like it was an ending, a big one. It was really just the beginning.
I thought about all of that, staring into the mirror. I thought about all of it, the hospitals and the doctors and the pills and the pain and the fear and loneliness, all of it, all of the shit that had gone down. And I looked in the mirror, and like boxers touching gloves at the end of a round, a sign of respect for your opponent, I nodded and said ‘fuck you’.
I don’t like the language of battle used around cancer. I don’t like to talk about fighting and winning and losing. But I don’t know of a better way to describe something to a lot of people who will thankfully never experience what I am trying to explain with my words. I read a newly popular memoir, Orange Is The New Black, about a middle-class white woman’s year in the federal pen. It isn’t a deep read. The writer isn’t trying to do big things but her descriptions of doing time, the toll it takes on a person’s emotions, the waiting, the ripple effect, resonated with me. I understood what she was trying to say.
Doing time is probably an emotionally truer mirror than battles and warriors. But it doesn’t produce triumphant warm and fuzzies in the general public in the same way Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art does. There’s no kicky montage music playing for a body when they leave prison, no upraised arms. They are just happy to be alive, like me.
I carry a boatload of physical reminders of the time I’ve done. Scars, missing body parts, parts that are still here but don’t work as well, all are there for me to deal with daily. But the things I harbor on the inside, the things no one can see, those are as plentiful as the physical and even more difficult to deal with. Depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, ghoulish nightmares, a loss of any sense of safety or security, those are the things that weigh me down, day in, day out. And precious few understand all of that internal politics, the negotiating, the mental tricks you have to play to keep from going completely insane, unless you’ve had to do it yourself. It’s the only way.
And no one can ever make any of it better for me. I have to do that. No one could go through my treatment for me, no one could do my time for me. No one can do the work of reintegration, of piecing together a life out of the bits left, the parts of me cancer did not consume. No one but me.
Times, like now, when it is so much of a good news/bad news kind of life, two steps forward, one step back Recovery Cha-Cha, I have a difficult time seeing any distance down the road. All is obscured in a heavy fog of uncertainty and doubt and making it up as I go along-ness. I can barely see where to set my foot next. Days, weeks, pass when I have to just sit down. Don’t know which way to go, no path seems any better or worse than any other and I don’t want to fuck it all up because I don’t have it in me to re-trace my steps, to start over. The trick is to not get so comfortable in that temporary resting place, I set up housekeeping.
There isn’t a manual on re-entry into the human race. I was on Death Row and then I wasn’t. What next? I’m sick of the question. I’m sick of other people asking me and I’m sick of asking myself. But I’m not sick of being alive. I’m not done. I’m not over. And as long as I’m still alive, anything can happen.
Fuck you, cancer.