Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Struggle

It's hard to admit when you are struggling. It's hard to admit when things get hard. When the path you are walking suddenly veers sharply to the left. Through a dark wood. With overhung branches blocking out the warm rays of the sun. And crows.

(God, there are a lot of crows in my forest!)

I've always used this blog as a sort of therapy. First to talk about the struggles and joys of raising three young kids. Then to advocate for LGBT rights generally, and to discuss my gay marriage specifically. Then later to process my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Through the years, I have used this blog to entertain. To laugh with my friends. To commiserate. To find the silver lining in my notably normal life.

What I've never used this blog to do is to ask for help. I'm going to remedy that situation right now.

I don't need to tell anyone who has been affected by cancer - and way too many of my friends have been - that it is tough. It is difficult emotionally. Financially. Physically. It affects every relationship in your life. It depletes your spouse. It worries your children. It drains your parents. Some friends disappear. Others circle the wagons. The love and support is both sincerely appreciated and mildly suffocating.

While you are undergoing active treatment for cancer, people ask how you are doing. Often. Friends of your parents (who you have never met) tell you they are praying for you every week (in churches you've never attended). Your aunts send you cards. And blankets. And funny wigs. Your friends stop by with food. You are the center of attention in a way that makes you uncomfortable. You want nothing more in the world than to finish your treatment and get back to normal.

What no one tells you - or perhaps they try to tell you but you refuse to believe - is that your old normal no longer exists. There is no going back there because it has vanished. Gone. AWOL. Finished. You can search and search, but you're not going to find it. 

But that's not all. Not only is your normal gone.

So are you.

The you that existed for forty-four years - the only you you've ever known is your entire life - is also gone. The you that was comfortable in her own skin. The you who was finally becoming confident in her own thoughts and words.  The you who enjoyed a hard-scrabbled self-reliance and the fruits of an uphill battle for resiliency. She's gone.

Gone is the body that you knew inside and out. From the straight, oily hair on the top of her head down to the scar on the side of her left foot she procured when her sister pushed her down one day playing in the flood waters at the bottom of Holly Avenue. You knew her intimately. You knew her strengths and weaknesses. You didn't always like her, but you knew what to expect from her.

Yeah, that chick? She left the building.

She's been replaced with a person you do not know. A woman you probably would not befriend if you met her on the street. She's uncertain. She's timid. She suffers from cognitive deficits resulting from the powerful chemo she received that causes her to get confused sometimes. To say the wrong word. To call an item the wrong thing. To drive all the way across town with no memory whatsoever of driving there. As a result, she doubts her thoughts. She doubts her words. She doubts her intelligence - something she always took for granted. She was never the prettiest girl in the room, but dammit, she was smart. She was capable.

Now she is not sure who or what she is. Who or what she is supposed to be.

Ruanita tells me that I'm not the same person I was before. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to respond to that information. That woman is gone. She didn't leave a forwarding address. The me that remains is the only me I have left.

I often wonder if she's enough.

I realize that I am whining. This fact is not lost on me. As a matter of fact, I carry around a hefty little bit of guilt over this. How am I able to whine about all of this...shit...when so many women aren't here to complain? Aren't here to hug their children or kiss their spouses? How can I not be grateful for this second chance I've been given? How can I complain about what I've been through when so many families have been through the same with worse outcomes than mine?

I realize that I am one of the incredibly lucky ones. My story could have very, very easily gone the other way. December 30th will be the two-year anniversary of the end of my active treatment. That was my last day of radiation. I know that many (way TOO many) women do not get to celebrate a 2-year anniversary. So I do appreciate how very lucky I am. And I want to take my second chance and make it into something worthy of the good luck and love I have in my life. This is what I want more than anything, but here's the thing: I have NO idea how to get there.

Because my cancer was stage 3, was quite large, and affected all three levels of my axillary lymph nodes, I received chemotherapy first in an attempt to shrink the tumor and prevent any spreading prior to surgery. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. The goal was to be as aggressive as possible. After I finished chemotherapy, I had a double mastectomy. Following my surgery, the pathology report was not great news. I had 28 lymph nodes removed during surgery. Of those, 14 were still found to be cancerous. Following surgery, I had radiation to the area, with the hope that it would eliminate any remaining cancer.

Today I am healthy and cancer free, but I am obsessed with those 14 lymph nodes. Cancer was still there after all that I endured during chemotherapy. It was still there. And I can't help but think that it had to go...somewhere. Nothing truly disappears. It's hard not to imagine microscopic cancer particles making their way into my liver. Or my bones. Or my brain.

When one thinks this way, every twitch becomes a death sentence. Every normal ache and pain of being 46 years old becomes an inevitable recurrence of cancer. Every day becomes THE DAY. The day the other shoe will most certainly drop. The day those 14 lymph nodes decide to rear their ugly heads once more. Its exhausting being so self-absorbed. Being so self-aware. It's obnoxious and selfish and makes me an incredibly uninteresting person to be around. I know all of this, but I can't seem to get out of my own head. 

This is my struggle.

I've begun seeing a therapist, but I think her sole purpose in life is to make me snot and blubber for 50 minutes straight. I leave her office with a pounding headache every time. I don't know how effective therapy will be at easing my mind or helping me to move past these circumstances, but I have promised myself I would keep an open mind. In the meantime, I am taking it day by day. 

So here is my request.

Please be kind to one another. There are struggles you may know absolutely nothing about.


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