I was riding in my car this morning, listening to WNYC, and a commercial for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center came on. It was talking about survivorship. I can’t remember the exact words of the commercial suddenly (chemo brain!) but it was something like, “After cancer, people call you a survivor. But after cancer, at Memorial Sloan Kettering, we want you to do more than survive. We want you to live.” On the Staten Island Expressway, 10 minutes from the school I would be teaching in, I started to cry.
Recently, I have been thinking about my life post cancer. It’s been a year since I’ve finished major treatment and although my trips to the cancer center are less frequent, I still feel like it’s a major part of my life. I remember after being diagnosed that I was told that I would have “a bad year.” I don’t know if I was told the next part or if it was something I assumed but, I thought my doctors told me that after the bad year, my life would go back to normal. My hair would grow back and look super cute with short styles. My energy would be back. I’d feel good and I’d be cancer free.
What a load of bullshit!
While the side effects of past and current treatments are awful, it is the emotional toll of the experience that is now hard to live with. When I started this blog, I wrote in my “About Me” page that I wouldn’t let cancer define me. I meant it, too. Just two weeks into my diagnosis, I’d bought into the idea that cancer was not permanent and that while it sucked in the present, it was something to be overcome. And when I did kick cancer’s ass, I could continue with life as usual. Cancer was like a “Breaking News” interruption of my favorite program; it was annoying and I wanted to get back to my regularly scheduled programming (my regular life) but I had to get through the necessary detour. That is what I was promised. That is what was sold to me. So when I said that I would not let cancer define me, I meant it.
Oh, naive, Carrie!!!!! If you only knew then what you know now. If you only understood the damage cancer treatment can do. If you only understood what was in store.
Cancer completely defines me. I think about it all the time; with every hot flash, every time I see my scars, every swollen sensation in my ugly ass lymphedema arm, every time I see the new curly, dry hair (previously wavy and shiny) that I can’t control, every time I put on mascara (I never needed it before), every time I eat (is what I’m eating a good choice? Will it stop my cancer from coming back? Is it feeding my cancer?), every time I work out and my body feels like hell, every back pain, every disappointing moment and even in every moment of joy. Cancer is always there.
Cancer is a part of almost every conversation I have. No matter the topic, it always comes up. I think to myself as I talk to people, “Just don’t mention it!!! No one wants to hear about it! They’re all sick of it. Stop talking about it! Stop! Stop! Shut the fuck up!!!!!!” But I can’t help myself. Everything for me comes back to cancer.
It is who I am. It is so much of what defines me, I often don’t remember the person I was before. This leaves me with the particular conundrum of having to redefine my life. I’m suddenly in the position where what I thought I wanted, I either don’t want anymore, am not sure if I want anymore or if I can make it work in my post cancer life. The things that brought me joy before cancer don’t bring the same amount of contentment. I feel like I should now do great things with this second chance I have been given but, what is this new goal that I must surmount? What must I achieve to make my life meaningful again?
I believe that in our lives, experiences can change us and make us analyze our current lifestyle and goals. We should redefine ourselves. We should always be growing. But when the impetus for change is something so violent, invasive, and permanent…that redefining can be overwhelming.
I’m trying to get to know myself again. I want to know who I am and what I will become. But right now, the old me is holding the new me back. She doesn’t want to let go. She doesn’t want the cancer, or, more accurately, the experience of cancer, to win. But it’s who I am now. It’s everywhere! Even in my morning commute.