Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I was going to title this post, “How to Beat Cancer,” but, I think that’s premature, considering I’m not 5 years out yet. Still, time will tell if the same strategy applies. What I know now is How to Get Through Chemo.
Chemotherapy is no picnic. It’s hard enough, as a woman, to lose your breasts, and if chemo takes your hair, your eyebrows, and eyelashes, it’s even harder. When you look in the mirror, you don’t even recognize yourself – on a good day, you’re an extra from I Am Legend. On a bad day, you’re Uncle Fester. Or maybe it’s vice-versa. Either way, you feel like a freakshow, and all you want to do is stay home and curl into a fetal position.
There is another factor, of course. Many women facing breast cancer are (like me) real “Type-As.” We are the driven, strong ones everyone else relies on, and the worst part of getting sick is entertaining the idea that we might (gasp!) be mortal. It’s hard enough facing the fact ourselves, but letting our friends in on the secret?! Or worse, our family?! Unthinkable!!
The worst thing you can do after a breast cancer diagnosis is hole up. I mean it: YOU MUST NOT RETREAT. It’s so so SO tempting to batten down the hatches and hide away until your hair grows back, to turn down requests to accompany you to chemo because you don’t want people to see you vulnerable. It’s the WORST thing you can do and you will have a terribly hard time Getting Through Chemo alone.
I’ve been where you are. I’ve made it through the deaths of two parents and four grandparents, two financial crises, seven triathlons, three careers, two marathons, a graduate degree and nursing my only sibling through a horrible divorce ALONE. I have carried burden after burden all by myself; I pride myself on being able to pull my own weight in any situation and when I was diagnosed with Stage IIIA Triple Negative Breast Cancer 3500 miles away from all my family and most of my friends, I told myself, “I can get through ANYTHING all by myself, and cancer is no different.”
I’m here to tell you: I was WRONG, and I am incredibly lucky I wasn’t dead wrong.
Cancer is NOT the time to bravely soldier on alone. Three days after my second Taxol treatment, after four very tough cycles of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, I was hit with the worst depression I’ve ever experienced in my life. I found myself crying hysterically at the foot of my bed, wanting to wash the last of the Vicodin from my lumpectomy surgery with the last of the tequila in my freezer. I felt so helpless and hopeless, I wanted to walk into the woods behind my house, curl up into a ball, and never wake up.
I credit three people with saving my life that weekend: my roommate, a fellow survivor, and one of my chemo nurses. My roommate sensed something was wrong when I woke up the next morning, and asked me to stop by her office before my chemo appointment that afternoon. When I got there, she introduced me to her coworker, who was a ten-year survivor of Stage IV breast cancer. I burst into tears when I met her, and told her I was terrified of the thoughts I had been having. She told me that she’d battled with depression during her chemo also, then looked me straight in the eye and said, dead serious, “You have to call in the troops.” I went to chemo and, instead of putting a brave face on for my nurses, I let myself cry in front of them, and confessed I wasn’t having a good day. For someone like me, who was always cracking jokes and making people laugh in Infusion Services, it was a huge admission. Chemo nurses, of course, are a special breed, and one of my nurses offered to do a healing touch therapy on me while I was receiving my meds (something they probably don’t teach at medical assistant schools). I took her up on it and when I woke up after treatment, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
I’ll never know if it was my roommate reaching out to me, her coworker giving me permission to ask for help, or my reaching out to my chemo nurses that lightened the load I was carrying. What I do know is this: when you feel like “turtling”; when you want to hide from your friends and family, rather than face them in a weakened, vulnerable state, you must do the OPPOSITE: you must REACH OUT. Let them be the source of strength they want to be for you!
In my moments of darkness, I asked the same question Jesus asked on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I felt so alone, so far away from what was supposed to be the Source of my strength at my lowest point. What I didn’t know was that He had surrounded me with angels to be there for me in His place. God loves us through other people. We just have to be open and receptive of that love. All around me were people waiting for the opportunity to be my rocks of Gibraltar, and if I had kept on insisting I didn’t need anyone’s help, I might have thrown myself into that pit of despair, for fear of appearing weak! Don’t do it. Don’t worry so much about appearing strong that you break from the pressure. People all around you love you no matter what, and are waiting to be there for you, if you let them. Call in the troops. You won’t win the battle without them.
This is How You Get Through Chemo: by Opening Up, not Holing Up.
If you doubt the power of strength, power, and beauty in numbers, check out this video: Playing For Change.