I’ve passed the four year survival mark. I didn’t even come here to commemorate it, which is probably a good sign that the fear of cancer no longer dominates my thinking. I’ve been tossing around a lot of thoughts lately, though, and had a recent conversation with another cancer survivor who asked me to share those thoughts, so here we go. Short version: I’m doing fine, managing the consequences of treatment, with no life-threatening worries. Long version below, with some negative thinking but not all bad news.
I had CT scans in May, and they showed no visible evidence of a local recurrence. What the scans did show was a compression fracture to one of my thoracic vertebra (i.e. the collapse/compression of a vertebra in the middle part of my spine). That’s not good. Spinal compression fractures are usually the result of weakened bone due to osteoporosis or weakened bone due to metastasis to the spine from another primary cancer.
So, you know, that was a bit scary. My oncologist ordered a follow-up MRI, which showed no evidence of spinal mets (whew), and then a follow up bone density scan to evaluate just how much my still relatively young bones are acting like old lady bones. All of this means that I’ve spent a fair bit of time during the past six weeks lying on tables while large, noisy machines whirr and clang and rotate around my body. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wearing unattractive hospital gowns and staring at the ceiling or the inside of a machine thinking, “please please please” and hoping for better news. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering how I got to a place where my 47-year-old body feels like an object to be maintained instead of a vibrant, living thing.
Cancer didn’t kill me. It probably won’t kill me. I am deeply grateful for that. Radiation and chemo didn’t kill me, either, and they didn’t put me through the misery that cancer patients endured a generation ago. My heart still hurts when I remember watching my father suffer through the aftermath of surgery and chemo that left what looked like a shell of his body, but not much else.
Radiation and chemo work because they kill cells – cancer cells, yes, but there’s no way to avoid some collateral damage. While I laid staring at yet another ceiling during my bone scan on Monday, I found myself realizing how much I feel like a shell – not as much as my dad must have, but still. Radiation shrunk my tumor, and along the way it did some significant damage to my ovaries, too, so instead of a natural progression into menopause over a few years, my body was delivered there in one fell swoop. That sudden drop in estrogen has its consequences, most notably the accelerated loss of bone density. Now I get to worry about breaking a hip at 50 instead of 80, and there’s something truly odd about realizing that a little part of my spine has collapsed in on itself, apparently just from the work required to hold my body up. My skin is dry. My sleep is interupted. My weight is stablizing at a higher number and a different distribution than I’m used to, and while I can live with it, I wasn’t quite ready for that change, either. It’s hard to love what is still a relatively young body when it’s been thrust into the role of a much older one.
I want to love my body, to be grateful to it for what it has endured and survived. Most days, I’m worried about it or frustrated with it. Some days, I’m actually disgusted by it. I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about bowel function. I’ve talked about this before. So much extra time in the bathroom, so much time worrying about cleanup and accidents and embarrassment. So much discomfort – sometimes significant pain – from a digestive system that just doesn’t quite work. It’s gross; there’s no way around it. I worry that, when I am an actual Old Lady, I will be wearing adult diapers 24/7 and spending a great deal of time managing truly unpleasant bodily care – or, even worse, depending on someone else to help manage it.
And the neuropathy clearly isn’t going away. I’m used to it, and often don’t notice it. But I still struggle to thread a needle or manipulate small objects. My toes are still numb and my footing can be unsteady. If you hit me, I’ll feel it, but if you brush your fingers lightly against my arm, I might not. A diminished sense of touch is a strange thing, not as debilitating as loss of sight or hearing (or, for me, taste), but a loss nonetheless. It affects me in all sorts of ways.
So there it is. I’m living, I’m basically happy, I’m still grateful. I continue to learn anew what all of that means. I’m not a hermit crab, so I can’t trade in this shell for another. I’ll continue to carry it around – for a long time – and hope that it holds up for me.