Everyone has their orbits, their ranges of motion, their finite, functional horizon between the sun’s rise and fall. Before cancer, these were self-evident; I had no need to articulate them. My body had a momentum that fit the workaday arc of most people my age, and then some: I ran 5 and 10k races, worked out, gardened and wrote, all while maintaining a full-time job and a home. These were facts.
Once cancer entered my life, the ranges and orbits changed. I find myself wanting to find a finite word for those changes here, such as “narrowed,” or “were reduced,” or “became limited,” because in one sense those “reductions” in abilities were physical bricks. Truths. A gash where my breast used to be. My new swollen, compressed arm.
But words implying reduction aren’t entirely accurate either. I say this because reduction implies permanence and certitude. A “reduction in abilities” doesn’t encompass the sudden surfacing of a kind of necessary attentiveness to the body, which is always in flux, always changing. And the cancer body becomes amoebic in its illness: cells die and return, fears resurface, hair grows and falls, skin tenders after sutures and heals, muscles stiffen and restretch, and the mind learns a new vocabulary of being. “Scan” is no longer about the landscape outside; the word beams inward, searching for malignance. “How are you?” is no longer innocuous and quotidien; laden with the weight of mortality, the phrase becomes a question of life itself. How long will you live? What is happening in your body? How frightened should I, the asker, be? There is such freight with the language. A kind of lightness has been lost.
And so, who am I in this new body? Where do I go? Bewildered in some desert, then a city, then a bed, then a corridor – who? Where? What?
One metaphor helps me now: the compass. It is astral in the sense of earth-only, grounded here and then here. It is a traveling re-orienter. To consult it means to know where the one thing is, which is “direction,” which is not a destination per se – for the cancer patient, true north, or “health” is an implied and ongoing possibility. Some of us are further from this than others. And some must close their eyes, rest, and stop.
The particulars: My body is changing, not for the better. My tumor markers have increased, and despite eating and eating, I can’t gain weight. I get so very tired. Restless legs torture me in the evenings, and scans are coming up. Like the compass, the general sense must reground in the particular and its details. I am here now, and I consult and consult the gravity below. In my hand is a small circle. Not much else is known.
The diagnosis is difficult enough. Once you hear the word “cancer,” the world becomes a blur of shock, grief, appointments, treatment plans, and phone calls. The ground beneath your feet is unstable, and your future is no longer sure. Your calendar is no longer yearly; it bends into a series of hours, days, possibly weeks — months and years if you are lucky.
With cancer, time changes.
Time compresses. It becomes urgent. It becomes How much longer? and When will I know? It is waiting, waking, sleeping, weeping, and more waiting. Time turns into a photo negative, a dream-state in which death – and/or the fear of death – feels imminent.
It is a cruel and double whammy that, while processing the enormity of a cancer diagnosis, you must also face its interruption of the momentum of your life. You must suddenly make tedious and quantifiable decisions with long-term consequences. Cancer impacts it all: where you live, your relationships, children if you have them, and your finances. Everything becomes negotiable in your priority to survive. And this includes bill payments, travel plans, life insurance, savings, living trusts, disability, college or retirement – in other words, money. Money symbolizes hope. It can symbolize your future. And if you’re still working, as I was and am, a flurry of changes must be considered.
Below is a list of my own financial decisions. These are always up for negotiation due to the risk of recurrence, my work situation, and energy levels. And I do not in any way recommend these steps. Everyone’s situation is different. But I do want to share this roadmap in the hope of supporting someone else through this process. I also want to preface this by recognizing that I have a spouse with a health plan, a stable living situation, and a support network of friends and family. I am aware that many people struggle and do not have this support. With that in mind, I’ve included a short list of links at the end of this piece to help you make your own decisions about how to proceed, and to find support (empathy, godspeed) if you need it.
So, a few months after the cancer diagnosis, here is what I did:
1. I stopped saving for retirement.
You might think this decision was foolish, and I don’t recommend it. But consider: The prognosis for stage 3C triple negative breast cancer, with lymph node involvement, felt terribly grim (SEE IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE). Major surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were in my future. I was in shock and grief, and wanted the money to help with treatment, counseling, and possible bucket list traveling with my husband and daughter. And the truth is that I don’t regret this decision. Not one bit. The small pleasures it granted our family were worth it. Noteworthy, too, is that this decision has also recently changed. With my recovery from this recurrence – a second round of chemotherapy and surgery – I’m shoveling small bits back into the 401K. I might very well live to retire, so with one big toe into the tepid IRA waters, I’ll start to save again. Crossing my fingers toes.
2. We made a Living Trust. Through an online legal service called Nolo (we have no commercial or other interest in them), my husband and I filled out the paperwork and got it done. It was simple and straightforward, and I felt such relief after completing it. After cancer, I had this terrible fear that my husband would also get ill and that our daughter would be left destitute. Completing these documents forced us to answer questions and make definitive plans for the worst case.
There are many companies that provide this service online. You can also hire an attorney, and they probably have better resources and more in-depth information about specifics, but the cost, likely over $1,000.00, is prohibitive. We didn’t have the cognitive or financial bandwidth for it. We live simply and don’t have complex financial dealings, so the online way worked for us.
3. We bought more services. Not things, not stuff, but help. One of the first services we purchased was a housecleaner. Twice a month, we hired a wonderful duo that came and deep-cleaned our house. May larks sing their praises. My energy levels tanked after chemo and surgery. Our family still had work, school, appointments – things to do. Coupled with a tired and sometimes cranky mama, this was a recipe for laundry piles, paper piles, random tufts of cat hair, stacked dishes, and an overwhelming sense of household chaos. But thanks to our housecleaners – whom we still hire, and tip, and thank, and are deeply grateful for – some sense of organization has stayed. Other services we purchased were: gardening, tree trimming, and Uber (after surgery).
4. We spent more on food. We bought healthier groceries and healthier pre-packaged foods. I didn’t and don’t always have the energy to prepare healthy meals, so it was often the grocery store salad kit, organic eggs, and splurging on the Whole Foods salad bar. Eating fresh produce requires frequent trips to the grocery store, meaning more money spent. We also treated ourselves to the occasional fancy meal. Worth every penny.
5. We bought less stuff. Gone were/are the days of impulse clothing purchases, for example. The trendy catalogue companies know our budget runs low. The library is the sole source for books (sorry, Amazon and independent booksellers) and thrift stores cheaply relieve any sudden need for novelty. We were never big on furniture, but any décor dreaming these days is tempered by bills. Dreaming it shall be. I’m ok with that.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know how long I have left. The scales weigh in favor of recurrence, meaning 1-2 years, but there’s always a possibility of long-term remission. This means Be careful with money. Be careful with your time. This has translated, financially, into permission to spend more on experiences, travel, life. Less stuff. No new car, no new table. Not a problem. But Paris? A five-star meal? Maybe. Possibly.
The way is open.
If you have cancer, what changes have you made? What are some of your considerations on this time- and life-changing path?
So good to see family and friends, to laugh, and to reconnect. My husband and daughter are able to relax a bit more – I see it in their released muscles, in their trust. Looking at candies and cakes and shiny red wrapping papers has lifted my spirits, and the smells of pumpkin, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg have infused me with some kind of winter-and-food inspired warmth.
Grounding. Here and now.
My strength is near-normal, the physical therapy exercises are working, and morning coffee brings such hope. We’ve gone on a few short hikes and planted some bulbs. I’m returning to work soon, and we’re even making summer plans.
We’re daring to hope this remission lasts awhile. We’re daring to trust in life again.
What else can we/I do, really? Giving up is not an option, and I’m tired of grief.
The world of cancer is peppered with super achievers. For some people, a cancer diagnosis propels them into a flurry of mountain treks, book deals, year-long walkabouts, profitable blogs, the starting of foundations. They do cleansing diets, quit or change their jobs, marry or get divorced, adopt children, remodel their homes. The wind machines of productivity blow their long, flowing (metaphorical) hair into the photographer’s lens, and the world, it celebrates their proliferating efforts.
“You don’t have long to live,” cancer says. It is, to be sure, a wake up call.
Respect. And it’s no one’s business how we react to cancer or any disease. The music of coping has a wide, wide range.
And yet I can’t help feeling pressured, at times, to do. I realize this is partly cultural. Americans value productivity, work, achievement, productive leisure (think high-end tents, travel, what did you do this weekend?). Even cancer is no ticket out of this race. Even the cancer patient (and the chronically ill in general) must justify their rest, their healing, their not-productive-sitting-reading-resting being. We don’t honor enough that healing is an active, regenerative process in which the body’s reserves must be deeply tapped. This causes fatigue. It can cause grief. We don’t honor rest. We don’t honor the trauma that cancer heaps on the mind and the body, and the concentric circles it then echoes into family, friends, community.
In this vein, I want to say that I haven’t been terribly productive. This has its pluses, its minuses. Working outside the home is a way of staying engaged with the world, is a way of having another thread of meaning woven into your life. And I have been away from a job I love for nearly seven months. Working inside the home is a series of tasks that are constantly being undone, and therefore there’s little to show for it. And I haven’t written a book, haven’t remodeled a room. Kitchen cabinets remain in disarray. The wet mop is still outside, the linoleum has holes.
I ask myself: What should I be doing, exactly? Should I be sorting through the old books, cleaning the garage? Another Costco run? More vigorous meditation, reading professional manuals? Piles of poem and other drafts stack each household table, as do my husband’s paints, brushes, figures. I wander and sit. I read, then rest. I cook a little, grocery shop. Then rest some more. I spend 2-3 hours a day doing physical therapy exercises. “What do you do all day?” someone asked. Cue maniacal laughter.
I once scrolled past a Twitter post that read something like, “Click to see how breast cancer inspired this woman to climb Mt. Everest!” I replied, semi-snarkily, “Breast cancer made me cranky and tired.” Oh, the dark humor of it. But it was the truth.
And you know what?
It was the most productive thing I did that day.
How do you cope with your body’s need to heal? Its unpredictability, the need for rest?
In order to remove all the cancer, the surgeon excised a rib and a “significant portion” of back muscle. But time has gone on. The drains are out, the surgical tape is gone, and now it’s scars and stretches and reaches and grit. Argh!
Step 1: Exercises for the lymphedema I’ve developed in my right arm due to the surgery. For those not familiar with it, lymphedema is a temporary or permanent swelling of the extremities (usually arm or leg) due to lymph node damage. Lymph node removal, often a part of later stage cancer surgeries, can result in a backup of fluid into the arm or area where the nodes were removed. And it’s what’s happened to me. My right arm swells and ebbs in accordance with my movement and idleness, and it’s now another side effect of breast cancer that I must – grudgingly – face. Next week’s agenda involves appointments for arm measurements and compression sleeve fitting. And if I must – and I must – get a compression sleeve, I’m going to get one that screams “DIRT BIKE SLAYER,” or one with dangerous-looking tattoos. Because sisters and brothers: Badassery is not solely for the able.
Step 2:Stretches. Oh, what fresh hell is this? My right arm currently swings like a dangling banjo. It is awkward, bumps around, is unsure of what gross movement and gesture it needs in order to return to the chorus. And so the kind physical therapists at my HMO have embarked gleefully (and oh how they laugh and type and so cheerfully cheer the grouchy patient on), on a program to challenge my movements. I stretch with bands, exercise balls, a pulley, and a cane. I reach up the wall to expand the chest and shoulder. I lay down and pull and reach and groan, soaking up hours of each day in order to knead and raise the bread of my tendons. Hello, serratus anterior. Hello, pectoralis minor.
Have a nice day.
Step 3: Aerobic exercise. I must now begin walking again. Months ago, pre-recurrence, I was regularly running 3-5 miles several times a week and lifting weights as well. I was in probably the best shape of my life. And now, after chemo and weeks of rest and tottering around like the old man Tim Conway, I am ready for the streets. 1 mile, 2 miles, and then back to running. Travels around the neighborhood, scouting the town. Sunrise and sunset, calf and bone. Trees.
I hope you, reader, are finding your own road too.
It’s been three weeks since surgery. I’ve been really, really wiped out. I’ve spent most days in bed or on the sofa, wandering the house, doing this or that odd chore, but mostly resting. My oncologist said I probably won’t even start to feel recovered until four weeks, and not “normal” until eight weeks out. This, to my need-to-be-productive-self, helps me feel better. Two drainage tubes have made it impossible to sleep in any position except my back, and my right arm is slowly gaining range of motion back. Today’s the first day I feel like I can type for any length, and this, too, gives me hope.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, thank you for your patience.
This surgery sent me into a tailspin of depression. The truth about general anesthesia is that it is a temporary coma, and can have major effects on mood. Post-operative depression is not something I anticipated, but immediately after surgery I fell into a well of despair that had me near some monster edge. My husband and daughter were bewildered and concerned. Combined with the pain medications and the lack of mobility and drain tubes and magnitude of this surgery and this diagnosis, I was in a very dark place. I would walk into the kitchen and just stand, bearing wave after wave of utter, complete grief and despair. I’m not sure I’m describing the physical aspects of the sadness enough – my body felt physically dropped into some hopeless, dark well and I was flailing for air. Dear friends and colleagues reached out, and let me tell you every text, every visit was a life buoy. There is a kind of salvation on this Earth, and it is called Kindness. And each day is one inch better. That is my measure. One inch, or one half inch. That is what this body can do right now.
The surgeons (thoracic and plastic) took out one rib. This was the rib that was borrowed from Adam, and he can have it back.
In a nutshell: wait, see, hope. Checkups every three months. Periodic scans. Because this is a local recurrence of TNBC, there’s no hormone treatment I can take. There’s no other preventative chemotherapy available. The new immunotherapy treatments are for metastatic disease, meaning disease that’s spread to the bones, or organs, or brain, and consequently they don’t apply. I could search for a clinical trial, but my case is not typical, and I don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to do much more than read magazines and watch TV. I’m in remission now, and yet the risk for recurrence is high, over 50%, and happens within 1-2 years.
We are in uncharted territory, said my doctor, gently. We sat in silence.
What can I do? This is the part where I look down into the valley and decide. Despair or hope? Another step up the mountain, or quit?
I look around and down and see the faces of my family, friends, coworkers and a world of sisters and brothers and I draw on the kindness that is there. I am so grateful. To extend the metaphor, the air gets thinner as treatment continues. The body wears out. A person has to make more frequent stops and gather strength. But you, readers, friends, family, cancer sisters and brothers, are my oxygen tank.