"You're too young to have cancer."
Whether it's the first thing my doctors say when I meet them, or random people who hear my breast cancer story, people like to tell me this. A LOT.
As I navigate post-treatment life — and all of the health uncertainty and anxiety that now comes with it — I'm constantly reminded how everyone believes that only old people get cancer. (When I was originally diagnosed, the disbelief of my age not matching the typical breast cancer patient statistics was the first thing expressed by all of my specialists on "Team Rachel.") Oh, I'm too young for cancer? Really?? Guess what? GOT. IT. ANYWAYS!
During treatment, I took full advantage of the support groups, because honestly, no one knows how this feels unless they have gone through it themselves. Sure, your good friends are there...but when you REALLY want to have an ugly cry about the loss of your hair, taste buds, or any energy until you hit your chemo "good week" (amongst other cancer fun), that's what the collective understanding and empowerment of the survivor community is for.
But when I first entered the chemo room (plus my very first breast cancer support group), pretty much everyone had grey hair. How do I relate to that?? When I then headed over to the young adult cancer support group, I was the only one with breast cancer. Also, many young adult groups "cut off" at 39-years-old, and I was diagnosed at age 40 (talk about a mid-life crisis!). Was I also too old to be a "young adult?" And if I didn't fit in with the expectedly older patients nor the younger ones...where did I belong?
Although I frequented the support groups often during treatment, I found I began distancing myself from them afterwards in order to "get on with life." Cancer was a chapter in my life that was now over, and I just wanted to move on. My life wasn't about cancer anymore (yay!), right??
As my concerns of lymphedema and physical scars linger (especially the residual neuropathy in my fingertips from chemo, which now seems to be moving to other parts of that side of the body, due to so many lymph nodes being surgically removed), the emotional scars — PTSD, depression, anxiety — continue to remain unseen.
Not sure what to do with these post-cancer blues, I finally decided to return to a support group specifically for post-treatment survivors. Who else would understand this mess? Since I had taken a self-imposed absence, I was eager to talk to my tribe once again to help me through this post-cancer maze.
As I anxiously entered the room, I noticed pretty much everyone had grey hair. AGAIN. (There was even talk amongst the group about finding a geriatrician. Sigh.) Sweet ladies, but although I went in hopeful that it would finally ease some residual issues as a cancer survivor, it only reminded me that I didn't belong. Once again, I found myself alone, in some weird cancer crack.
On my Uber ride home, the driver and I made small talk. He inquired what I had been doing there, and I told him my survivor story. In the darkness of the car, he listened and offered sympathy. When I went to leave the car, the light went on, and he saw my face. He turned to me and said, "Ooooohhh...you're waaaay too young to get cancer." Yeah, yeah, yeah. I KNOW!!
Lately, I've been seeing stories of cancer survivors who haven't made it. (Even worse, they "beat cancer" at one point, but then it came back, meaning they didn't "win the battle," as people like to say.) Although these stories are supposed to inspire me to not waste my "second chance at life," all they really do is remind me that CANCER IS A SERIOUS A$&HOLE that doesn't care who it affects. It does not discriminate in its ruthless attack on your body, no matter how old you are (just ask this poor 8-year-old girl who recently had to have a double mastectomy). Cancer is scary s---t that follows you around like a permanent cloud.
Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I had lingering effects from chemo, and they asked me, "How long is it supposed to last?" Good question! I know everyone wants to hear I'm "done," but honestly, there may be (very) long-term effects of killing my cancer in the short-term, and I have no idea if they will ever go away. Now, it's all a game of wait-and-see.
When will my body return to normal? I wish I could answer that. More importantly...when will I?