Redefining My Life After Cancer
Many articles have been written by cancer survivors who endured the rigors of chemo, surgery, radiation, and drug treatment. They also took an emotional journey as they struggled to accept their condition and get on with life. Their stories usually end with a happily ever after of some sort – they beat the disease, are physically well, and learned many spiritual lessons on the way.
These brave people are rightly called survivors, but in many ways, their stories are just beginning. I know that because I am one of them.
The beginning of cancer
My oncologist told me that he could not predict how long I would live after my treatment because many people with cancer are living longer. That was good news, but little did I know that a real journey was going to take me into the unknown both physically and emotionally.
In March, 2011, I had the dreaded news from my family doctor that I had breast cancer. An MRI showed a suspicious mass on my hip that might be terminal and untreatable bone cancer. I confess that I was surprised how I reacted to the diagnosis. I accepted it. As a Christian for many years, I felt I was ready to go if God wanted to call me home. I did not believe it in my heart though.
I felt that God still had a lot of work for me to do. I rejected the possibility of bone cancer, and six months later, another MRI proved my theory that the mass was scar tissue from an old back injury. So I was a good patient and endured chemo, drug therapy, surgery, and radiation.
A new body
After my surgery, I referred to myself as a bride of Frankenstein. I had a big gash from the middle of my chest to under my right arm. I underwent reconstruction surgery, but had long, thick scars. My thick, wavy, hair – the envy of my girlfriends - was zapped by chemo and grew back a thin, straw-like mess.
I counted these things as a price I paid to continue to live, but I struggled to accept the new me. I felt ugly and repulsive. My clothes became disguises for the new wretched me. As I sought the scriptures for comfort, I felt assured that God loved me in spite of the way I looked.
I also suffered from nerve damage at my finger tips and at the bottom of my feet. My feet felt like I was walking on pillows and my fingers were very sensitive, especially to cold. If I was peeling veggies straight from the fridge, my fingers would hurt. Only placing my fingers under hot running water provided relief. They tingled as if they were on their way to being “asleep.” At first, my oncologist told that this was a side effect of chemo and would go away in six months. Years have passed and I still struggle with this. My oncologist says that this will go away one day and I hold on to that hope. There were other minor irritants such as soft fingernails.
I am currently taking a medication that blocks certain hormones that promote cancer growth. It causes muscle inflammation something like arthritis. I dread climbing stairs in the morning, but the deed must be done. My mobility gets better as the day goes on. I have had other physical struggles – pain, shingles, infections and other fun stuff. Exercise and walking does provide some relief.
At every stage of my treatment, I was told to expect chronic fatigue but did not expect to suffer from this conditions for years afterwards. I had to learn to listen to my body. If I did not lie down, my body would protest with brain fog and headaches. My energy is coming back, especially if I exercise, but I still have a long way to go. I still have to crash for a few hours here and there.
This condition, not to be confused with lymphoma, hit about 2 years after my surgery. My right hand and arm started to swell.
After a sonogram of my arm, I was diagnosed with lymphedema. When I had my surgery, some lymph nodes were removed, leaving my body’s lymphatic system vulnerable. Now the remaining lymph nodes are not pumping out excess fluid, causing swelling in my right arm.
The only way to manage it is exercise, massage therapy, and wearing a compression bandage during my waking hours. There is no cure.
Cancer side effects that are potentially funny:
- I save a lot of money on shampoo, shaving cream, and razors
- I saw myself bald (whoopee)
- My straight hair wig makes me look so different from my former thick, curly mane that acquaintances did not recognize me at first
- People liked my wig better than my former hair (grrrr)
- I could blame all memory dysfunction on chemo brain
- I have an excuse to sleep anytime I want
- Hair has not come back on some parts of my body, including my most of eyebrows, but those three annoying hairs under my chin are flourishing
Using a sense of humor: There is nothing funny about cancer itself, but many things about cancer are ridiculous enough to poke fun at. For example, I lost all (and I mean all) of my hair on my body during chemo. My hair came back thin and straw-like and many parts of my body are still hairless. I may quip that my puny eyebrows refuse to grow back to their former glory, but the three annoying hairs under my chin are flourishing.
Acceptance of my situation: This tactic is so hard. I want to be like Job and question God as to why I am in this situation. I spent many nights staring at the ceiling and wondering why I was suffering like this. Questioning God, however, did not get Job anywhere, and I know it won’t help me. Instead, I have accepted the way things are and meet challenges head on.
Life goes on
One of the biggest fears for people who have had cancer is that it will come back. I have met many people in oncology clinics who faced this nightmare. I have asked myself many times, could I go through cancer again? The answer is yes, but only if I am willing to depend on God to get me through it.
I had a scare early in 2013 when a mammogram on my left side showed a suspicious lump. After a year of tests and intense scrutiny, it turned out not to be cancer. As I continue to get well, I am thankful to be alive on whatever terms.
© 2015 Carola Finch