Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I finished treatment — specifically Herceptin, the Big Pharma miracle that made this chick a survivor instead of a dead young mother — and I’m here to tell you that… cancer still sucks even when it’s *probably* not lurking in your body (since you can never be absolutely, positively sure whether you have cancer cells ready to multiply like the Duggars). And a lot of times it doesn’t suck.
I often get asked well-meaning questions about how I’m doing, and all I can do is smile and say, “Good.” And the follow up to my “good” from the questioners is usually a, “So, you’re all set?”. And I nod. Yes, all set. Not gonna drop any time soon, thankyouverymuchforasking.
But oh, the subtleties. The gray zones of life, which is pretty much where human existence resides. It’s here you take the true post-cancer assessment. No, I won’t die soon (knock on wood). Yes, I survived treatment, albeit fatter from it and with less hair. But that’s all good. I can eat fewer donuts and grow my hair out.
But the fallout. It is painful, but I will tell you about it.
First, let’s talk about pain medication, kids. When you get cancer, you will almost surely get opiate-based pain medicine at some point. And if you take pain medicine, biology kicks in after a set amount of time and physical dependence is assured. This is the not-so-miraculous side of Big Pharma. Yes, you get relief, but when you want to stop, it’s possible you end up sick from withdrawals. Or, you may start taking more than prescribed because opiates feel pretty damn good. I’ve heard of it happening in kindly older gentlemen without prior substance abuse issues and stage 4 breast cancer patients whose death is imminent. Biology does not discriminate, so if you find yourself with a bottle of oxycodone and you like it just a *wee* bit too much (JUST LIKE ME!), you’re not alone. Ultimately, it took some Suboxone and time to get off of opiates. Suboxone is a blog post in itself and has many treatment implications I won’t explore here, but I will say that it can be a nice bridge to getting off of painkillers as long as you have a scrupulous doctor who prescribes you the lowest possible dose (nothing more than 2-4mg) and is willing to wean you off asap. Before going that route, check to see whether your hospital has a pain management center. They understand addiction and can wean you off sans Suboxone. Just make sure you give a third-party the pill bottle if you go this route (another lesson learned the hard way).
Second, there’s relationship fallout. Since it wasn’t so long ago I wrote “Ode to My Husband,” it may surprise my dear readers that we are divorcing. Why, you may ask? See above paragraph. Then there are the kids. When I had cancer, ALL of our energy was spent making sure the kids didn’t end up as future glue-sniffing runaways due to post-cancer trauma. When you put all your energy into kids and none into your relationship, well, the relationship dies. Also, cancer has a way of shining big honking spotlights into the dark corners of relationships you can usually ignore. Patterns and behaviors that worked when you were healthy may not fly when you’re sick. And so, my ode, while not void — it was very real at the time — would be much different if written today. I am still deeply grateful for my ex and still appreciate all of the wonderful qualities mentioned in my ode, but, sadly (big understatement), it’s over.
Finally, let’s talk recurrence fear and post-trauma crapola. I’m soooo happy to report that my odds went from an initial 40 percent chance of recurrence to a less than 10 percent chance of recurrence (another round of applause for Big Pharma Herceptin!). But odds are odds, and sometimes you’re on the losing end. Heck, I sure was when I was diagnosed (only 5 percent of breast cancer diagnoses are made in women under 40). When you have survived cancer, there’s no getting around the fear that it will recur because recurrence almost always equals death. And the only way to stave off death is to take chemo indefinitely. If that does’t bring up a cluster of craziness, I don’t what could. In short, these are the things I often think about: Am I going to make it to retirement?; Should I bother saving to a 401K?; How long will I live?; How long will I be with my kids?; What’s that pain in my [body part]? Is it metastasis?????
Thankfully, there is grace and beauty in the world, especially outside of my brain. First, there’s the endless people and organizations that have helped me and my family since diagnosis.
And a few months ago, a couple of years after hanging up my journalism hat in exchange for a head scarf, I found out that my alma mater (or more specifically, Jeff Howe, who is a newer professor at Northeastern and kind of a genius) created EXACTLY the program for which I had been searching in vain for years. It’s called Media Innovation and it allows journalists who know how to write to explore web-native storytelling by taking a cross-section of classes from across the school. I made some inquiries, met with Jeff, and was in like Flynn.
A few weeks ago, I landed a job as a news producer for bostonglobe.com, where I work in the Globe’s newsroom with amazing people, a lot of whom donated a sh*t-ton of money to our family during treatment.
I’m ECSTATIC to be back in journalism. As an undergrad, by the second week of Journalism 101, which I took on a whim, I knew I was destined for the profession since it satisfied every atom of my being.
So, to sum it up, cancer is a mix of crap and rainbows. The crap can overwhelm you and take your breath away but just when you’re ready to consign yourself to an inferior existence, the rain stops, the sun shines, and the rainbow appears. And if you’re determined to find it, the rainbow is of the double variety.