You readily see the physical changes caused by cancer, but what goes on in your mind is just as noteworthy.
In July 2011 Barbara Carlos was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. A resident of Hawaii, she works in administrative support at a college and has retirement as her career goal. Music keeps her sane, as side effects of chemo and radiation linger. Overweight since childhood, she keeps trying to lose the estrogen-laden fat that her cancer loves.
I am not sure exactly how or when it started, but somewhere in the midst of chemo, I noticed a change. Things that used to make me crazy no longer bothered me. Other things that I had thought so unimportant that they had been left perking away on the back burner for years suddenly came to a full boil. It was confusing. Between being overwhelmed by cancer and exhausted by treatment, my poor chemo brain couldn’t process whatever was happening, but it knew something was going on.
I kept chugging along, constantly juggling priorities and re-prioritizing them. After a while, I noticed a change in my attitude. I was no longer afraid of the little things in life. I didn’t care if I wore the wrong clothes or said something stupid in a meeting. After my last chemo, I spent a week in the hospital with neutropenia and had another two weeks of bed rest at home. I didn’t physically feel up to doing anything that required more exertion than breathing, but my brain clicked away as I lay there. By the time I started radiation, the transformation was complete. I had become fearless. In spite of the nasty burns on my chest and the pain they generated, radiation was a piece of cake compared to chemo. I had made it through chemo and I was going to make it through radiation just fine. I had faced off the Emperor of All Maladies and won the battle. I felt empowered beyond words and completely confident that I was going to win the war.
Five is the magic number. Whether or not we consciously count the days, we all are shooting for five years. From the get-go, I knew in my heart that I was going to make it, and I did. I could exhale, finally. I wanted to do something to mark this milestone even if it existed only in my head. I spoke to the hairdresser who has been covering up my post-chemo gray these last years. We bleached my hair pink for the month of October for breast cancer awareness. I admit, I turned a few heads with shocking pink hair. It’s certainly not something you see every day. I am not sure I would do it again, but I was ready for it then, and I think a part of me needed to do it.
Only a few people at work knew about my cancer. There were others who suspected or figured it out but respected my privacy by not mentioning it. There was a health fair on campus in October and I volunteered to staff a breast cancer information booth and coordinated a few other events during the month with another cancer patient (Sorry, but I hate the word survivor and can’t bring myself to use it). Besides the pink hair, I wore pink in one way or another every day that month. I wanted to own my cancer, to acknowledge the reality of its existence, to let others know that if it happened to me it could also happen to them, to encourage other women to listen to their bodies and act even when there’s just the slightest whisper in the ear. Cancer didn’t scare me and hadn’t scared me for years. I was surprised at how many faculty, staff and students stopped by the booth and spoke of how cancer had touched their lives. I shouldn’t have been surprised at all; the statistics are one woman in eight will get breast cancer, and I know way more than eight women on this campus.
It’s been over five years, and I continue to go about my life fearlessly. I do what I want and go where I want to go, within reason and ability. I was raised to speak my mind and now feel almost compelled to speak truth to power. I don’t have time for nonsense, and I never suffered fools gladly. I have learned when to let go or walk away, and I do. I have nothing to lose at this point. I don’t spend time worrying about cancer coming back. I intend to live a long life so odds are that cancer in some form will visit me again. I doubt I will ever have to face anything worse than what I have already been through.
You could say I have been liberated from all my fears, large, small or imaginary, and maybe even vaccinated against future, unknown fears. On a bad day, I feel contented, but on most days I am very happy inside. A colleague who was on my hiring committee had told me long after I was hired that the committee selected me for the position because I was a tough cookie. I guess I am. Cancer couldn’t make me crumble. I may be a tough cookie but it’s a happy, tough cookie.