For weeks, I’ve been wondering what I should write here. Should I try to share my eight-month battle against breast cancer? Should I share how I'm feeling emotionally these days? Should I try to take my observations and experiences as a cancer patient and try to say something profound about life?
The truth is that a part of me just wants to forget everything that happened this year, starting on April 21. I can’t, of course, so here’s a quick summary.
Cancer treatment sucked. Between surgery, chemo, and radiation, I spent almost eight months dealing with different kinds of sickness and pain. The healthcare professionals weren’t always the compassionate people they needed to be. They weren’t always on the ball. And the cost... It was nothing less than obscene, making me doubt the United States’ right to consider itself a first world nation.
I feel emotionally and physically broken, devastated by loss, and afraid this terrible disease will come back. That’s how most cancer patients feel. It’s hard to get psyched about the future when you’re not sure you’re going to have one.
Life makes no sense to me at the moment. I feel distant from everything I used to love. My faith is in tatters, and I can barely relate to the life I had before. How can I go back to it? Perhaps I can’t.
Yes, 2014 has been the worst of times. But before that, for two precious months, it was the BEST of times. After years of working my ass off as a single mother, putting in long hours at the paper then writing fiction in all of my spare time, life seemed at last to be going my way.
On February 10, I got on a plane and lived The Dream. Ever since being an exchange student to Denmark, I have wanted to live in Europe. And although I wasn’t actually able to relocate to Copenhagen, I traveled back and forth between France, Denmark and Spain, doing book signings in Paris and Madrid, spending time with my beloved Danish family and friends, making new friends, taking in historical sites, art, excellent food, and new experiences with Benjamin and then with both Alec and Benjamin. What could be better than bumming around Paris with both of my sons? When we stood together on March 28 in front of the Eiffel Tower after enjoying a sumptuous meal there with our friend Pierre, I felt I had finally reached the part of my own story where I could settle in and enjoy my own happily ever after.
I came home on March 30 and was diagnosed with Stage 1c breast cancer in April. Poof! There went the magic.
What followed were a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation. The only good to come out of the past eight months — other than catching the disease early and hopefully saving my life — is the amazing support my family, friends, fellow authors, and readers demonstrated every single day during this long nightmare.
There were some fun times. My sister spent seven weeks with me, and I always laugh when she’s around. My brother David took me on a surprise trip to Mount Rushmore, which I really enjoyed, even though we got the news that my Danish father had passed on a few minutes after we got out of the car. Benjamin and I went on an Oregon Trail trip, visiting stops along the trail, including Fort Laramie. During chemo, I tried to make the most of it, going on long drives in the mountains and taking a few easy hikes with Benjamin.
That didn’t take the ugliness away, but those trips were my attempt to live as fully as I could despite the ugliness.
I feel that I must say this: I do not believe that God has a plan for me that includes breast cancer. I don’t believe that breast cancer was a “path” I was “meant” to walk or a “journey” I needed to take. I don’t believe it is/was a gift or a blessing. I didn’t “manifest” it. I don’t believe I should be grateful for the experience. I don’t buy into any of that fatalist, pseudo-spiritual crap intended to downplay the horror of these past eight months.
It was terrible misfortune, a major bummer, a shitty bit of luck. It sucked.
So where does that leave me?
My hair is growing back. Apart from starting Tamoxifen later this week, I am done with treatment. I’m facing years of regular check-ups and tests to monitor my health, a situation that will probably involve a fair amount of anxiety even if all goes well. I also still have to undergo reconstruction, hopefully sometime during 2015. But apart from one major surgery and regular check-ups and tests, I can go back to my regular life, knowing I have about a 90 percent chance of making it five years without a recurrence.
When I was in the midst of chemo and thought about going back to my life, I imagined myself being like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, clinging to his bedpost and saying again and again, “I’m alive!” then dancing through the streets in my pajamas. But that’s not how it’s shaping up. Between an overwhelming sense of loss and nagging worry, whatever joy I might have felt is largely muted.
I am working with a counselor to try to make my way beyond this emotional morass by utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy to get control of my thoughts. I’ve also registered for a meditation class, despite a life-long reluctance to do all the stereotypical things Boulder people do. (I grew up surrounded by happy, shining people carrying yoga mats who seemed oblivious to the hardships of the world that I saw as a reporter, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.)
I need to change my diet and exercise, but that is tricky, too. I tore the meniscus in my knee midway through chemo, so walking and exercise are tough for me at the moment. Yes, I could swim, except that I can’t. Swimming requires swimming-appropriate fake breasts and an adapted swimsuit, so that’s expensive and out for the moment. Still, I have permission to ride a stationary bike, so I’m going to be doing that even if I’ve always disliked that as a form of exercise. Quelle joi.
Most of all, I need to get back to writing, or I’ll be living in my parents’ basement by June. I started Holly’s story before my diagnosis, and I hope I can get back into it and finish it quickly so that I can continue to eat in the daily fashion to which I have grown accustomed. Plus, the book has to be really good to make up for the year I’ve been off the market and for the inconvenience to my publisher.
Pressure? You bet!
These are the challenges that frame 2015. I hope I can find the courage to be equal to them. I hope I can find a way to transform the grief, the rage, and the fear. However long my life is, I need to live it to the fullest.
It’s Project Happiness all over again, except that I am both weaker — and stronger — than I was before. Life has gotten pretty fucking real, and so must I. Fortunately, my record for dealing with horrible days and harsh reality stands at a gleaming 100 percent.
In the meantime, please know how much your posts here and on Facebook meant to me. I saved every card and gift you all sent to me. Your donations to my medical fund and the Good Food Fund made such a difference in my life. Forgive, if you can, the fact that I wasn’t able to write thank you notes or contact you all personally in response. The cards are saved in a special box that is now so overflowing with good wishes and concern that I can’t close it. I have read and re-read them all.
Here’s hoping for a happy and HEALTHY New Year for us all!