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On never leaving Cancerland

Tomorrow will be my last radiation treatment which comes 1 year and 2 days after I first discovered a lump in my breast. That’s one full year of some kind of cancer treatment: 2 weeks of fertility treatments, several weeks of biopsies, scans, and minor procedures, 5 months of chemo, 1 month of surgery and recuperation, 3 more months of chemo and 6.5 weeks of radiation. I am DONE! I say those words and can feel the breath of exhalation all around me, the exuberance that others must feel and yet I have a hard time feeling those things myself. It’s not that I don’t feel them at all. It’s just that my feelings are much more complicated. It’s not as easy as just relief or just happiness.

I had heard this story about cancer patients told over and over. “The hardest part sometimes doesn’t start until all the treatment is over.” “Depression often hits once it’s all over.” I couldn’t totally understand why when I was in it. I just wanted my life back. I just wanted it to be over. I just wanted to get the heck out of Cancerland! And now I find myself at the end, light in front of me, tunnel behind me, and I finally understand why this phase is so difficult. The reality, as it turns out, is that Cancerland is a bit of a Hotel California situation. You can check out, but you really can’t ever leave.

One of the most overwhelming feelings I’ve had as I’ve faced down both my one year “cancerversary” and the end of my treatment is extraordinary sadness. I’ve been mostly pushing it aside but an excruciating sadness has been creeping its way into quiet moments. I didn’t understand it at first. I should be happy I survived this year. I should be so thrilled to be done. But the sadness comes not from being at the finish line but from being forced to run the race in the first place. I feel like I spent the last year protected by a suit of armor. I was in the middle of the fight and the battle wounds seemed normal for the battlefield. Now I am finally allowed to take that armor off and am just now getting a good look at how many hits I took. I feel extraordinarily sad for my body. I feel deeply upset for my psyche. I can’t believe how much I had to go through. I can’t imagine how I survived that much pain. And I am incredibly sad that I had to go through it. I feel so sad for the carefree girl I was a year ago. She has no idea what is about to hit her. Basically I’m home from the war but the war still happened and there were too many casualties to name. I’m just now able to sit down and finally grieve all those losses.

The other feeling is, of course, fear. I am now going from fighting my cancer with all that modern medicine had to throw at it to hoping that it stays at bay. The next time I get bad news from a doctor it could be much worse than any news I’ve gotten so far and that is terrifying. This involves all levels of finger crossing and berating myself for not doing the “right thing” at every turn. I recently listened to a famous author talk about the fear that is ever-present when it comes to being a creative person. She said that whenever she sits down to write a book she always starts by welcoming the fear in. She lets it into the backseat but tries to make sure it stays in its place. “It’s not allowed to drive and it’s sure as hell not allowed to change the radio station.” That’s kind of how I feel about fear in my post-cancer life. I know fear will be a faithful hitchhiker as I journey into survivorship. But that doesn’t mean I have to let it drive the car. It doesn’t get to make decisions for me but I do have to give it its space.

And then, finally, of course, there is trying to figure out how I live my life here in Cancerland. The roller coaster rides are behind me (along with the nausea and the dizziness) but I still won’t ever be able to leave. Cancer is a part of who I am now. Cancer is written all over my body, in each scar and in the daily reminder that sits squarely across my chest. Some of the things it took from me I will get back, like my eyebrows, for example. Some things are forever gone: like my breasts, a certain level of carefreeness and the person that I once was. And some of the things Cancer gave me- a deep appreciation for living, a perspective on what really matters, and an endless well of empathy for the pain that life is capable of inflicting- I will take with me always. Now I just have to figure out how one makes a life in Cancerland. I know how to be a cancer patient in here but I’m not quite certain I know how to be a person yet.

Lucky for me all of the people who matter most are already in here with me. I’ve also got a clear vision of the life I want to live from here on out and a deep well of strength to go out and live it. As my body continues to recover from this long and arduous battle I’ve got big plans to start living it up (I’ll be going to three countries on three continents in three months, just for starters). As this devastating, celebratory and spot-on Cancerland theme song goes: “I will be good though my body be broken.”