My primary treatments were completed at the end of March. As is commonly the case, I continued to experience some of the common and annoying side effects from both chemo and radiation. Fatigue, foggy brain, short-term memory challenges, premature menopausal effects like aching bones, hot flashes, and so on. However, you won't hear me complaining about these things because frankly I'm grateful for all of them because it means I'm alive!
Cancer treatments - including surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and for some targeted therapies - are not fun. While they target the cancer they damage healthy cells and systems of the body and it's a crap shoot in terms of what effects and damage one will have on the other side of the treatment regimen. Some of us are luckier than others when it comes to side effects, short- and long-term. Though, I happen to believe that if you're a survivor you are blessed - period. And I believe that we experience things the way we choose to experience them (or the way we're convinced we will experience them). Two people can have the exact same side effects and still have the exact opposite experience coping with them. Our ability to cope (or lack thereof) is ultimately what represents how we choose to be affected by things. Some dwell on their ailments and let them rule their life or use them as excuses for not owning their life and moving forward productively. Others embrace the new knowledge and understanding and find ways to use that to help themselves and others. If you have been following me on this journey you know by now which category I fall into.
Early on in this journey I made a decision to live. I also made a decision to give it (treatment) my all and to see it as a blessing from God. The chemo drugs that some view as poison, I saw as God's liquid gold cure juice running through my veins and disintegrating diseased cells. The radiation treatments that some view as nuking their insides, I saw as God's light and love surrounding me like a layer of protective armor squeezing out any last rogue cancer cells that may have been hiding out. I truly believe that my choice to view treatment in this way, and my renewed faith and relationship with God got me through the treatments without knocking me down physically and mentally.
Don't get me wrong - I had some seriously crummy days. Every chemo cycle was a bit harder than the previous. Eight cycles (12 chemo doses) is no walk in the park. I was so exhausted that every moment I was alone with my son I had to have planned out to help me get through it without falling asleep and leaving him unsupervised. And when I couldn't stay awake any longer I would take him into a gated and child-proofed room of the house where he could play and be entertained while I sat on the floor or a couch and not be fearful if I were to fall asleep.
There were days I couldn't stand for more than 5 minutes without losing my breath and balance. I put up with a watering eye, muscle twitches and spasms, and neuropathy in my hands causing me to drop and shatter a number of glasses because the chemo was damaging my nerves. My digestive system was a mess, alternating between having the runs 24/7 to being constipated for weeks and weeks. The hot flashes were intense and frequent - feeling like I'd been lit on fire and then immediately thereafter felt like I'd been shoved in a bucket of ice. When I would finally fall asleep at night I'd either be woken by a hot flash or my toddler son who still does not sleep through the night (he turns two this month).
Sleep was such a challenge and problem for me that a number of times I actually got a hotel room and took sleeping aids to get a good night sleep when my husband was home and could get up with our son while I focused on getting some sleep down the road at the Hyatt.
My mind wasn't sharp. I forgot things. I lost track of things. I'd start a sentence and forget what I was talking about - frequently. I'd be convinced I told my husband something but really had only thought about telling him (or so he tells me haha). Frankly, the chemo brain fog is the side effect that frightened me the most because I was terrified that I'd slip up and cause harm to my son when I was alone with him. I was terrified I'd forget him in the car or that I'd screw up administering his medication because I wasn't thinking straight all the time and was exhausted. I was terrified of letting my colleagues down or even losing my job when I was working part-time during the 2nd half of my chemo regimen because I was so forgetful and easily confused.
When I was in the home stretch, starting the final treatment chapter of radiation, I developed lymphedema and had to begin another series of treatment for that. I came back out of work and onto disability status because it wasn't possible to give work and my health the time they both needed to do it right since I had daily radiation and 3x week physical therapy sessions. I felt defeated at first because I wanted so much to feel "normal" again but as I went on and prayed I realized that God was looking out for me when he let my arm swell up - He knew I wasn't being honest with myself about what I could handle and that it was just too much and I needed to refocus on treatment and less so on other things so at the end of February I stepped back out of work.
All along the way I was still OK through this craziness. I decided I would be and I was. I asked God for the strength to push forward and He gave it to me - in the form of internal motivation, support and encouragement from friends and family, and more. I know how much worse it could have been - I've witnessed it first-hand with a friend that lost his life to cancer in '98 and with dear friends in my life now who had different experiences with their treatment. I have been blessed profoundly.
I was/am alive and every side effect, every discomfort, was/is a reminder that God wasn't/isn't finished with me yet. That these temporary issues are just that - temporary. And that even if they were long-lasting, they are far better than the alternative which simply was not an option for me. I choose to live.
As much as we (survivors) want to hurry up and get back to "normal" following treatment, we realize that it's a more challenging feat than just resuming your former life. It takes time for chemo meds to get out of the system. It takes time for the skin to recover from radiation. It takes time for the arm and breasts to recover from surgeries. It takes time for the brain fog to clear (think pregnancy brain only far more intense and longer in duration) and resume proper firing of neurons and the like - you know, what's needed for normal and complete thought processing and healthy memory activity.
I'm grateful that I've been blessed to have the support network, the insurance policies and the compassionate employer that have all allowed me the time to focus on not just beating the cancer but healing from the treatments and having preventive and reconstructive procedures so that when I return to my "normal" life, I will do so confidently knowing it truly is time to move forward, to turn the page to the next chapter.
My new "normal" has many things that are the same as before - my place of work, my family, my friends, my home - praise God! But my new "normal" has many new things too - my lifestyle and priorities have incurred an extreme makeover. For example, God is #1. My health (and my family's) is #2. Everything/everyone else comes after these and just about every position on my list has changed in the past year. Those who know me well will recognize how major a change this is for me.
This week (tomorrow!) I am going back to work and I'm jumping right back in with both feet - full-time. In addition to my realigned priorities and getting back to work, I have new missions to accomplish. One being the new cancer ministry that I'm co-founding at my church this month! Another being a book I've begun to work on with two of my breast cancer sister survivors. I must be careful about biting off more than I can chew but I also must move forward and avoid the temptation to rest and recover for too long.
I hope and pray that this next transition will be smooth and that I will receive God's favor and mercy to allow me to return to work with a stronger and healthier body and a sharper mind. I ask the Lord to help me do my very best to serve and support my team and to set healthy boundaries that enable me to honor my new priorities and help me stay healthy. I'm so grateful to be able to return to work at a time when so many others don't have jobs. I pray that God will use me to fulfill His will and purpose for my life in every venue that I enter. That He give me the patience needed to figure out what that purpose is and how to be the best I can be. I pray for forgiveness for when I falter, which I admit is often, and for guidance on how to stay on the right path. I hope and pray that I can use my story to acknowledge that cancer is a real bitch but that it can also be a real blessing in the form of positive changes in a survivor's life.
Thank you, Lord, for giving me another chance to to make every day count - to find your purpose for my life and fulfill it, however long it may take. Thank you, Lord, for pushing me out of the nest and back into [my new] "normal" and ever so blessed life. I won't let you down.