I pulled up on the side of the road. I knew I had the right address, as the pink door was the giveaway. I had always admired Cat for her quirky way of decorating her home; so it was a no brainer that as soon as I stepped through the front door I wanted to move in.
We hugged. I got a tour of the house. I met her dog, and her adorable son.
“OK, you can sit down, and I will ask you questions, and I want to hear all about it.”
I smiled. I loved Cat for her no bullshit approach.
You can ask me anything you want. If I don’t want to talk about it, I’ll tell you.
I hadn’t seen Cat for over a year. We had exchanged texts here and there, but since I’d last seen her, she had had a baby, and I had been diagnosed with, and finished treatment for breast cancer.
I started talking. Cat asked questions. I responded. We discussed what was next for me. I cried. We exchanged stories of our existing life choices/situations. We laughed. And before I knew it, three hours had passed, and it was time for me to go.
Thanks Cat, I really needed that. I feel much better.
I got in the car and drove off realising it was the first time in months that I’d felt I could talk properly. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
It will be approaching 5 months since I finished chemo. Five months in which my physical appearance has changed dramatically from the puffy faced, eyebrow less, and thin haired woman that existed for the larger part of the last 6 months.
If you were a stranger walking passed me in the street, you probably wouldn’t flinch.
If you were someone that had no clue about what I had been through in the last year, you would probably think I had decided to have an edgy hair cut.
If you are someone that knows exactly what has happened in the last year, you would probably tell me I look great.
All of these things are very plausible and real, because I am aware that I do not look like I was a cancer patient. In fact, I surprise myself with how I do look compared to other recent cancer patients. Whether it be luck, my attitude, or genetics; I have magically morphed into a “healthier” version of myself in the space of 4 months.
So to anyone that were to cross paths with me, from an external perspective, I do look great. In fact, I am rocking a short hair cut, that I never would have had the balls to do unless I had had chemo. I am the heaviest I have ever been, but I am also the most comfortable with my body image that I have ever been.
Dare I say it, but I think I look pretty damn good considering what I’ve been through. And in a weird way, I’m more happier about my appearance than I have been in a long time.
However, with this new found look I have, I am also very aware it gives off the illusion that I am physically and mentally ok.
Once chemo finished, I would meet up with people, and I suddenly felt like I couldn’t talk about my situation as openly anymore. I felt that people had heard the story so many times, that it started to feel awkward.
I started to notice the frequency of contact I had had in previous months, was slowly disappearing. The “check ins” faded away, or just stopped. Everyone was getting back to their lives, and normality.
For a large portion of the people that had seen me throughout the last year, I was done with chemo, so the hard part was done. Everything would be ok going forward…right? I would be tired for a bit, but I would be up and running and back to normal in no time…my nails would be back in no time.
I stopped talking about it.
The side effects still linger
The truth is, for the six weeks after I finished chemo, I couldn’t walk for more than 10 minutes without feeling like I’d been running for an hour. I was exhausted. I would need to have a 3 hour nap in the afternoon, to help me rest after a 30 minute walk in the morning every day.
My muscles are the weakest they have ever been. I have absolutely no upper body strength, and the new addition of Tamoxifen to my body makes me stiff and achey. I have been seeing a physiotherapist purely because walking and kneeling made my knee give way. And for the last month, I’ve been dealing with lower back pains and throbbing feet.
When I explain this to people, I’m often faced with
“Oh I get back pains too. My feet hurt also. It’s a sign of getting old.”
All I can do is politely smile when I hear these things said. I mean, thanks for being empathetic guys! Because, deep down, when I hear this, all I want to do is scream out loud. I want to scream that my body isn’t like this due to age. It is like this because my body was battered with chemotherapy drugs, and steroids, and all sorts of cocktails of pre-medication for the last six months. That is why!
And let’s not completely ignore chemo brain. Contrary to the jokes I make about being generally forgetful; what I do not mention is that my ability to concentrate on things has changed. Sometimes I sit in my room, and I can’t remember what I did the night before; or who I spoke to on the phone a few days ago. Conversations can happen around me, and I will be participating; but I may not be fully aware of what is happening, and may repeat myself, or ask something as if it is the first time I have done so. It happens; and for me, this is one of the harder ones to explain to people.
The reality is that even though chemo finished, the long term effects of the poison that had been put in my body for six months, will take up to two years to leave my body.
For anyone that knows me well enough, they will know that I am great at being ok. I’m a master of being fine. I got it nailed down like a pro!
I am, however, a very transparent person, and very easy to read.
When I get into a world of excessive information being thrown at me; thinking too much; or getting overwhelmed, I start to shut down. And when I mean shut down; I mean withdraw. Go quiet, and keep myself to myself. And then I smile, because it is just easier. It is just easier to respond with a smile, because it saves me the energy of really saying how I feel, without getting upset.
A few weeks ago, I was hiking and for the most part having a good time. However, while surrounded by nature and friends, I was freaking out internally.
I was exhausted.
I was thinking how my physical strength was still poor. I was afraid of misplacing my foot on the rocky incline because I didn’t want to fall, and I didn’t know if osteoporosis had come about from chemo. I wanted to stop, but I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to get to the summit, but I was getting more and more emotional as a result. I stopped to rest. I didn’t want to let the others down. I was getting frustrated, and I was beating myself up in my head. I became snappy, and had to withdraw and walk ahead. Then the nearest spot where we stopped, I sat down and cried.
And that’s the problem I face right now. I feel like I am walking alongside my friends and family, but on a different path. A path, which isn’t flat and easy, but which is rocky and requires support.
I need to be able to talk freely about my struggles, but I also want people to ask how I am. For people to realise that even though I’m done with chemo, I’m still dealing with the aftermath. To give me a hug when they see me withdraw. To just see how I’m doing now and again.
I may not be a cancer patient anymore, but I still have my mountain to climb, and with that, I need my walking sticks, and sturdy shoes, and support.