Looking Over My Shoulder
This week makes it one year since I learned that I had uterine cancer. A year is a long time. I need four more years without hearing that I have cancer to feel I have beat the odds. I know that five years without a return of cancer is one achievement I cannot reach by study or practice. Cancer is a formidable foe that no one fully understands. It may come back. It may come in some other form. Every time I look over my shoulder I see cancer in the same way as I see cars using my Kia Soul’s mirrors. Some objects are closer than they appear and some objects are in my blindspot. I don’t see them at all until it is too late.
I still feel lucky. When I say lucky I mean that I often experience a giddy effervescence that is somewhere between selzer and holy water because I am still here. There is so much lightness inside of me after having survived surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Based on recent blood tests and my last CAT scan, there is now no cancer in any of the places where uterine cancer would spread. That is fantastic news! There have been times in the last year when I did not know whether cancer remained following surgery. My pathology test after surgery said the cancer had invaded more than 50% of the wall of the uterus. It had spread to one fallopian tube. It had “involved” the cervix. My surgeon did not remove my lymph nodes when he performed my hysterectomy. The cancer could have reached those nodes. That meant it also was possible that the cancer had reached out to the nearby blood, bowel, or bladder. That is why I underwent five weeks of radiation and six weeks of chemotherapy. I wanted to make sure that the cancer had not spread to any other places.
The last year has not been easy for me. I had to quit radiation after five weeks because my bladder could not take it any longer. That’s a far worse burn than any other I have ever suffered. I remember when I thought a sunburn was bad. I remember whining after hot pizza blistered the roof of my mouth. I remember the time in college when I backed out of the shower into an uninsulated steam pipe and had third degree burns on my behind. I thought I knew about pain. Sometimes I have to read my old blogs or thumb through my diaries to recall just how difficult the last year was. Pain came in a form that my memory finds hard to recall. I can forget how terrified I was when I could not urinate at all because blood clots blocked my urethra. I pushed hard, thinking it was like getting a chunk of strawberry too big to pass through a straw in a milkshake. It was much worse than that. I felt like I might explode. At the same time, I felt so toxic from a bladder infection that I cried out to God in fear for hours at a time when every fluid that came from me felt like liquid fire. I have not forgotten the days and nights when my sister sat beside me stroking my dissolving hair with gentle fingers while she prayed with me for the pain to stop, but I can lose touch with the pain that prompted such vigilant caring. Some part of me is so eager to put it all behind me that it keeps pushing the memories away. When I do remember how much pain I withstood this past year, I still feel lucky.
Unlike many of the cancer patients I have met this past year, my treatment ended. I am healing. Even if it takes a lifetime to heal what treatment has burned, I am getting better.
I do not think I am doing as well as I am because I was saved by God. I have walked beside too many others on this road to believe I deserved to come out as well as I have or that more people prayed more effectively for me than did for them. The truth is that I have met many people more deserving of good health than I and some have not fared as well as I have in treatment. No one deserves cancer. No one. And I know there are people who think we deserve to suffer. They ask about risk factors like their existence makes the cancer warranted rather than merely more likely. Cancer isn’t something you can prevent with clean living. All you can do is try to influence chance. You cannot control it.
Nevertheless, I feel lucky in the sense that I feel blessed. My faith and the faith of others helped me get through what I endured. This was a challenge that I survived because others helped me keep going. When I was most frightened I prayed to God for the strength to make it through the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months. And I made it through those trials. My mom, sister, and brother were there for me. They made sacrifices to support me during surgery and treatment. The families of my sister and brother were there for me. When I worked those really long Saturdays out in Schaumburg they prayed for me to get through the day. And I did. I am grateful to the people who got me through treatment and recovery. Barb has been a wonderful friend. She has been there for the darkest of days, including the night I was first hospitalized, the days leading up to and following surgery, the day I met my oncologist to learn my chances for survival, two of my chemo/radiation days, and so many days in between and after. She even opened all the hospital bills for me when the idea of opening them paralyzed me. She took me to that horrid exploration of my bladder and listened to all my fears.
I was lucky to have many family and friends’ support. My mom took me to the hospital right before Christmas. She was way out of her element but she did all she could. She lit candles in church and prayed for hours on end for my recovery. My sister Kathy spent an entire month with me, driving me to classes, making meals, and helping me to keep going after I got out of the hospital that second time. My brother Danny came twice from Texas to take me to chemo/radiation combo days at the hospital. Let’s not forget how my sister-in-law Lisa saved my hair with advice that I take selenium prior to chemotherapy! My niece Maureen and her fiance Justin came out from Maryland to take me for another such marathon. They will marry on the anniversary of my surgery, giving me a positive memory to associate with that day. Dominique took me to another chemo/radiation session. She was the only person in town who could visit me during that horrible week I spent in the hospital after my treatment ended. She has offered so much in the way of alternative treatments, too. Mary paid for me to have my apartment cleaned and paid for a month of my long distance phone bill. She called me every week, sometimes several times a week, during the toughest months of treatment. Roberta sent me cards every week, sometimes every day. She packed up a whole package of surprises for the holidays. She came out to visit. Susie called so many nights to see how I was doing. I treasure the memory of those calls. Michael and Alice sent flowers and a care package of soothing music. Alice offered so much good advice and comfort. Aunt Joan, Pam, Courtney, and Gail called or wrote to cheer me on. Aunt Arlene, who is being treated for metastasized breast cancer, prayed for me. Paul called to see how I was managing. His mom and dad, Gladys and Nick, prayed for me and my mom. Kim prayed and volunteered to come out to help me. Maggie, whose health was failing, prayed for me and called to see how I was holding up. Sue came to visit and cheer me up. Cindy sent me cards with wishes for health. Diane and Steve stayed connected all the time. Kathleen and her brother John sent messages of hope. Rick and his wife prayed. Ivanka visited Medjugorje and made a petition for me. So many of my friends and colleagues sent their wishes for my return to good health.
My students were so kind. Some anonymous students sent me a “robot” to clean my floors. My LARC III class sent me a lovely card. Millie sent me flowers. Joyce sent me a care package of treats and movies and surprises. Tracey brought me her homemade baked goods. I received countless notes and emails with good wishes for months. I know I was included on the lists of many prayer groups.
I am grateful also for my doctors and nurses. My surgery may not have answered all of my questions about my prognosis, but I recovered from it swiftly. Dr. H and her team have been excellent. I have encountered some wonderful nurses in the chemotherapy infusion unit. Cook County’s CareLink program has relieved me of so many worries about how to pay my medical bills.
What can I say about the many cancer patients and survivors I have met this past year? The patients at Stroger Hospital have shared my path through treatment. They are gallant, good-natured, generous, and caring. This week I went to the hospital to pick up a prescription and drop off another. It took hours to accomplish the process and I still have to return this coming week to pick up the second prescription, but it has become a place where I have grown stronger. I thought I saw Country Joe walking toward me down a hallway. It was not him, but I wished I could know whether he and some of my other cancer buddies were doing well. You cannot help but root for the people you meet in this environment. I hope everyone is hanging in there.
I read the wordpress.com blogs of several women who have been treated for breast cancer. They have touched my heart with their advice and their support. I started with Yvonne’s blog Time to Consider the Lilies. She writes prose and poetry that touches my heart with its honesty. Through her blog I have come to read many others. I now read Lori’s blog Regrounding and “Treyccc”‘s My Daddy is Dying on WordPress. Some of the people engaged in the battle against cancer know more about living than anyone else I have met.
I have learned so much from others’ experiences. You might think it would be depressing to read about the cancer experiences of others, but it is inspiring. When I first learned of my own diagnosis I thought the toughest thing I would have to do was to face the prospect of my death. It turns out that the toughest thing you have to do is face your life. You learn what matters to you. I would trade money and belongings for time with people I love. I have always known that, but not in the way I now know it. The “trade-off” is no longer a hypothetical. It is an imperative.
It is no longer enough to see a friend or hear his voice or see her handwriting on an envelope. I want to talk and listen to discussion of what matters to people who matter to me. Is someone I care about moved by the way the sun slanted through her windows one afternoon? Did she lie on the couch and let the sun slide up her body as it set? Did it make her recall a time long ago when we sat on the beach and wondered whether to barbecue chicken for dinner? What was she thinking about when she read the lines in a favorite book? Did she cry like I did at the end of the story? What was he thinking when he sat down to write a eulogy for his father? Why does he wish his wife would put her cat up for adoption when his commitment to his dog is for the animal’s life? What carelessly spoken words of a decade past still play in her ears and make her worry that she is not attractive? Why does he think he has never been in a love that lasted? When you start to measure time in terms of how much might be left instead of how long you have been here, then you start to see time as something else. Instead of counting seconds, you learn who you can count on in times of trouble. You count blessings like they matter more to what your future will be like than the balance in your IRA. You count the cost of medical care in terms of meaningful existence rather than breaths because you see that medicine can waste you as well as heal you. You learn that what often scares you the most is not dying but giving up the battle for life. Once the battle is abandoned, few seem to live much longer. They pass on swiftly. It is the fighting that makes you feel more alive.
As I look over my shoulder I have regrets, but this is not the time to count them. This is a time to celebrate and make merry. As I look over my shoulder, I see that I am still moving forward. And, for as long as I can keep on doing that, I am lucky. Lucky to be alive.