One year ago today, I had my major breast cancer surgery after completing 15 rounds of chemotherapy! 😍 AMAZING! Something shifted internally inside of me after this surgery, since so much of cancer treatment is clouded in fear. Originally too scared to show my head during chemo, I walked the halls that day with my IV...and my (bald) head held high! WOW, did I really just survive all of that?? Why had I been hiding?? Why shouldn't I be proud?! I was a BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR! (I guess I always was one since my diagnosis...but now I felt I could finally use that title and mean it.)
Before today's momentous occasion, and shortly after my last post celebrating my one-year chemoversary, I was due back in my oncologist's office for my "new normal" of my trimonthly bloodwork check-in. Where did the time go? My boyfriend went with me, and we knew it would be a quick trip, but naturally, good ol' scanxiety was kicking in. Just as I was celebrating passing one major milestone, I was also reminded again of the routine reality of being a cancer survivor.
While I was in chemo, I had a port put into my arm to ease my frequent transfusions, especially with Taxol (if the infusion happened to go outside of my veins, NO BUENO). I also had a pre-chemo port routine: an hour before each chemo trip, I would pile Emla (numbing cream) on my port site and then wrap it in plastic wrap and tape so the cream would not escape. By the time I got to the chemo room, my port site was sufficiently numb, and I barely felt anything, especially the needle. Perfect!
With my final surgery (I had three total), out came my port! I was finally finished with cancer treatment; what did I need it for?? I knew once the port came out, I would truly feel DONE with treatment. It hung out in my arm for more than a year, constantly reminding how much longer I had to go until the finish line. Once it was removed, I knew my cancer treatment was finally o-v-e-r. Now, all that remains is a vertical scar on my arm, a small badge of honor to mark my cancer journey. YES!! I was so excited it was gone! Now, I could finally move on, right?
But as much as I hated that constant port "bump" in my arm, I oddly missed it when I recently had to return to the infusion room. Not so much having it, but because it helped me to not feel anything, especially the needle! After I sadly had to pass the other patients stuck in chemo chairs (my heart went out to them), they prepped me to take blood from my now notsogreat veins, since chemo does a real number on them. Thankfully, my boyfriend sat across from me and smiled. I knew he was there, but I could not look as they were about to draw blood. I had to close my eyes.
As I felt the needle go in, I couldn't stop crying. Suddenly, memories of being in the chemo chair for hours came flooding back, along with everything that came with it: routinely poisoning my body, not knowing how it was responding to each infusion nor if the cancer was responding, and if it didn't, then what?? Tears ran down my face as I felt the needle in my arm and blood leaving my body -- unbeknownst if the numbers will show if my cancer has returned -- with no numbing cream to shield me from the pain. I felt it now...and I felt EVERYTHING.
I now ride the ups-and-downs of a) reflecting on celebratory cancer milestones, and b) looking ahead to new cancer "maintenance" appointments. For us survivors, hearing that you are "cancer-free" is only the beginning. Yes, the tumor may be gone, and active treatment may be done, but the physical, mental & emotional after-effects are not. Many of us are still experiencing long-lasting remnants of our cancer treatment (including PTSD, scanxiety and depression), even though we "survived cancer" long ago. We are never truly "done." A recent New York Times article also reported that anxiety lingers in cancer survivors long after treatment ends:
"...a new analysis finds that within two years of a cancer diagnosis, the pervasiveness of depression in patients and their spouses tends to drop back to roughly the same levels as in the general population, only to be replaced by another mind-demon: anxiety, which can even intensify as time passes."
As I've recently finished navigating the constant uncertainty of cancer treatment and now look ahead to my new unknown of (hopefully!) STAYING cancer-free, I can't help but wonder...when will I actually feel the freedom of being "cancer-free?"