Writing about finishing treatment has been a subject I have skirted around since…well, since I finished treatment. Its harder than you can imagine putting into words the range of emotions you go through from the minute you are declared non-cancerous and sent on your way, until…. well, until now, a year and a bit later.
There is the joy. Without a doubt! Pure unadulterated JOY when chemo, radiation and surgeries are done! The relief is indescribable: no more drips, no more nausea, no more weekly bloods, no more scary looking nails or numb fingers and toes, no more scarves, no more waiting at cancer centres or daily drives to the radiation-ray-gun machine! You are about to hit “play” deactivating the pause button which has pretty much had your life on hold for what has felt like FOREVER, and just get on with living…
Sounds simple doesn’t it?
But anyone who has walked this road themselves or been there walking the road with someone they love knows that this is not how the story ends. It’s not where you get to go off into the sunset and live happily ever after in your world without cancer.
For most of us the fear, no make that terror, we experience when we realise just what this new life of ours looks like, and when reality really hits –usually on day two, while the paint is still drying on the “Congratulations your treatment is done” banner.
Don’t get me wrong, you know just how lucky you are. You really do. You have sat next to people at chemo who weren’t so lucky, you have spoken to people on the phone that weren’t so lucky. When others tell you how lucky you are, you agree wholeheartedly. Believe me, YOU KNOW!
So what’s the problem I hear you say? Suck up your lucky-ness and get back to the living…
In my opinion, it’s the uncertainty of life post treatment that tends to do the most damage to cancer survivors.
The medical teams wave you off with aplomb and send you into the big world outside the cancer centre doors, having done their jobs to the best of their abilities. And there you are, a little battered, scarred, and bruised but healed, zealously waving back, smiling broadly while telling them jokingly (but seriously!) that you hope to never see them again!
*Cue the door shutting in your face* You stare at the shut door with a broad smile for a moment, just taking it all in, just thinking how great it is to be on the other side, something that you have been yearning for for so many long months; something you actually secretly started to believe may never happen. You take a deep breath poised and rearing to re-join real life… and then, find something completely unexpected… why is it so hard to turn around and walk away from that door… “c’mon you can do it”: you tell yourself, “just turn around”, “it’s just a small movement”, “dammit, just put one foot in front of the other”, you know you want to, you know you can, “so do it already!”, “there you go” you coax yourself… and slowly while you make that all important, life altering turn …the fear starts seeping in because deep down you know what you may find….. You take a tentative look around, feeling a little awkward with that grin plastered on your face. You feel it start to slip ever so slightly so you try harder to keep it in place, the result is a freaky looking Halloween grimace as you finally ask yourself the inevitable question…
OK, so now what?
What you have failed to realise while you were otherwise occupied by surviving the cancer and the prescriptive treatment plans, is how unprepared you are for just how different this world without cancer actually now looks.
Had life always seemed this fragile?
Or this trivial?
How can you ever possibly relate to your old life or with people going about their normal lives ever again?
Something so profound has happened – you have come face to face with your mortality and fought a beast that lived inside you. You conquered the dreaded chemo, you lost your hair (all of it!), you have laid on a table while radio waves have burned your skin, you have had blood taken for 10 weeks from your foot for goodness sake! Dealing with everyday human issues seems, well so darn….. well, like expecting a knight in full armour to come home from a battle only to lay down her sword and pick up a dish cloth…
Equally when you sit down with friends and your usual girl talk turns to husbands behaving badly… and the like. It is hard to join the conversation and say just how annoying it is when Pete leaves his clothes on the floor (sorry just using this as an example as it’s something that he definitely does not do!) when he’s seen you at your worst, bathed you and your wounds and pretty much loved you despite it all. He deserves a lifetime of get out of jail free cards for any domestic slip up!
Everyone around you talks about their lives, their kids, their jobs and all you feel you can contribute is…. “well, you know I’m alive. I didn’t think I’d make it there for a bit, but the oncologist is positive that I should be ok. But I can’t seem to comprehend how I will ever feel safe again. How will they know if the cancer comes back? I really miss the weekly bloods, you know having a needle jabbed in your foot isn’t that bad, maybe I should just insist they check my blood every week just in case. That sounds logical right? How else can I live with this uncertainty for the rest of my life? How do I not go insane?”. A sure conversation stopper, and NOT in a good way!
I have lost people close to me, very close to me and I therefore thought I understood that about life, how fragile it is. But it takes on a new meaning when YOU live that fragility.
So how do you possibly function like a normal person in this new, fragile world you find yourself in?
I have asked this specific question of women who are survivors of breast cancer. None of them looked at me strangely or told me to get a grip or even to get over myself, or asked me if I knew how lucky I was. Each one gave that same knowing smile, and strangely their answers were pretty much the same, no matter how long it had been for them… “You just do”.
“You get up each morning and get on with your life, but with a new understanding, you know how precious every one of those days are”. “And yes, every ache, every pain is always the cancer returning” said my friend, a cancer survivor of 20+ years. “My dear, that never goes away, but you learn to live with the uncertainty because none of us know how long we’ve got, whether we are a cancer survivor or not. But we understand this a little more than the average person”.
So yes, I have started to adapt to my new life post cancer. Although I still have a hard time calling myself a survivor in fear of jinxing the whole thing! It has become a little less like I’m living from one check-up to another. But I won’t lie – each oncology visit is still pretty scary. I do know that some progress is being made as I don’t wake up each morning and have cancer as my first thought any more.
I am starting to be a whole lot more pragmatic about life too, as I do understand that this disease may kill me one day. But then again so may a bus, a clot, a falling coconut (it happens more frequently than you think, ask Wikipedia!).
I certainly have not turned into a walking being of positivity and philosophy! But on the good days I choose to be grateful for every moment and for everything that makes me happy, and for most parts it really is about the simple things: walks in the garden with the dogs, holding Pete’s hand and laughing with special people. And yes, on some bad days, fortunately a whole lot less frequently, I choose not to be… and for the most part, that’s ok too.
So this week, the 2nd year anniversary of my diagnosis, I finally thought I could talk about life after treatment and to share what I have learned… that recovery comes quietly and in its own time.
“Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.” China Miéville
“Hollowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps” Paula Hawkins
“You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” Kurt Vonnegut
“it’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.” Zig Ziglar
“Scars are tattoos with better stories.” – Author Unknown.
Death by falling coconut
In order for a falling coconut to indeed kill somebody, the coconut must be heavy enough and the tree it drops from must be tall enough. Documented instances of death by coconut include the following:
• In approximately 1777, King Tetui of Mangaia in the Cook Islands had a concubine who died after being struck by “a falling green nut”
• In 1833, four people died from falling coconuts on the island of Ceylon
• In January 1943, a U.S. Marine was killed in his sleep when struck in the head by a falling coconut near Henderson Field on Guadalcanal
• On 26 August 1952, a seven-month-old baby died when it was struck in the head by a coconut while being held by its mother in Butterworth, Singapore
• In 1966, a resident of Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, was killed while eating lunch beneath a coconut tree when struck in the face by a falling coconut
• In July 1973, a two-year-old girl was killed, and her aunt injured, in Waikiki, Hawaii when “a hail of coconuts” fell from a 50-foot (15 m) palm; the police reported 57 coconuts had fallen
• In November 1991, a mourner was killed by a falling coconut while attending a funeral at a cemetery in southern Sri Lanka
• On 17 January 1995, in Kota Baru, Malaysia Mat Hussin Sulaiman, 76, was killed when the monkey he used to pick coconuts from trees hurled a coconut, splitting his owner’s skull open
• In April 2001, a resident of Vanuatu was killed by a falling coconut while seeking shelter from adverse weather conditions relating to Cyclone Sose
• On 15 August 2001, in Kampung Tanjung Badang, Malaysia, Mamat Kundur, age 59, was killed when a monkey used to harvest coconuts from trees dropped a coconut on his head
• On 1 August 2002, in Raub, Pahang, Malaysia, 6-month-old Nurul Emilia Zulaika Nasaruddin, died after a coconut fell into the child’s crib and struck the child
• On 22 September 2003, in Raub, Pahang Malaysia, Deraman Ghomat, 65, was waiting to catch a bus, the wind became stronger and it started to rain just before a coconut fell
• In March 2009, 48-year-old Luelit Janchoom, in the Nakhon Si Thammarat province of Thailand, was killed when a monkey used for harvest coconuts furiously kicked them down to his master, hitting his head (Wikipedia)