I had trouble getting dressed this morning. I couldn’t make the fingers on my left hand work well enough to close the clasp on my bracelet. I had problems with the buttons on a cardigan sweater another morning. It is a regular occurrence, problems making my digits do things. It would occur even more if I had not, without ever being conscious of it, switched from wardrobe staples like chinos and button-downs to leggings and t-shirts.
Chemotherapy torched my central nervous system. Two years post-treatment and I think I’ve recovered as much, replaced as much, damage as is possible. I wish I could walk or write, climb stairs and use a chef’s knife, without pain but that isn’t how things rolled out.
I wish the only drug therapy that alleviated my horrific insomnia didn’t cause significant weight gain but it did. I’d like my spine to stop disintegrating but it won’t. I want my immune system back.
Part of maturing is understanding life is full of trade-offs. You can cut your commute time, move close to the office but no yard for the kids. More of one thing means less of something else. I don’t mind it, so much, all of the little bits here and there. It’s the aggregate, the whole mess of tiny sacrifices that add up to enormous deficits that I’m having a difficult time with.
During my treatment, I didn’t give much thought to the damage being done to my body. My working theory was a set of fully functioning hands was of no use to a corpse. The choice was that stark. If I gave any thought at all to the removal and reconstruction of my breasts, it was through a Vaseline-smeared, soft focus lens of hope-y change.
Most of the ink spilled about breast cancer treatment focuses on chemotherapy and its awfulness. Successful mastectomies and reconstructions are taken for granted. The process, the questions about what should or could be done, are mostly unasked now, everyone assuming the best all the way around.
I assumed the best results. I never contemplated a life without breasts. I never considered the complications. I never thought about failure. When I thought about my life post-treatment, when I thought about how I would look, I always pictured me with breasts. Smaller ones, for sure, and perkier to go with my new kicky short hair and everything was good.
It’s weird, what people will say, what they think is okay to say when you have breast cancer. People asked me what size implants I was going to get. People had opinions on what size and shape I should get. And they thought I had a right to hear their opinions, an obligation to answer their questions. If I weren’t already self-conscious about my body, the questions and the comments assured the topic was an emotional minefield.
The last months have been one long span of me feeling all of the the feelings, all of the things I couldn’t or wouldn’t feel or think about while I was in active treatment. All of the things that got put to the side while I was busy not dying came to the fore this last fall.
Getting a little sleep gave me the brain power I’d been lacking. An ease up in the constant doctor appointments and procedures and tests, endless surgeries and ER visits, allowed me to breathe deeply and finally take a good long look at my situation, metaphorical and real.
First, I realized I was pretty busted up. The physical damage was wider and deeper than I had imagined it would be and it was going to take more than a few months of rest and relaxation to recover. Next, I realized there were some things were never going to be the same. And finally, one puddle of pajamas on the bedroom floor at a time, I finally understood reconstruction wasn’t successful and I really had lost my breasts.
Because I am who I am, I feel somehow responsible for the failure. I feel like I let my surgeon down. It isn’t rational. The tumor did serious damage to my chest wall. Radiation did even more damage. Tissue degradation isn’t anyone’s fault. It happens. But still, I think I could have done something differently, been better at something, and the surgery would have been successful.
I have some grieving left to do. I’m not quite reconciled to all cancer has taken from me. I still have a lot of questions hanging around and answers are not thick on the ground. I’m still recovering. Beginning to wonder if I will always be recovering and would that be so bad? Recovery implies a little tender, loving, care, going easy on myself. Maybe recovery is the thing I’ve needed all along, that will allow me to finally ease up on myself, be gentle and forgiving after a lifetime of harsh critiques and self-hatred. Maybe, if I can ease myself through this time of mourning, I can make this trade-off work for me.