It's challenging to accept the physical limitations one may experience post-cancer, but changes to the body can pose real physical constraints.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
It's hard to accept the fact that my body doesn't always do what I want it to do. You'd think that three and a half years post cancer, I'd have learned what my body can and can't do, but I haven't. I'm still of the mindset that I'm able to do all the things I used to do. But today, I was reminded of several things. One, I'm not as young as I used to be; two, my energy level has greatly decreased; and three my body doesn't work like it used to work.
This weekend, we'd purchased some steel shelving units for our garage. I'd made a comment several months ago about how frustrating it was to see all the messiness of our stuff in the space our cars should be. Finally, after nagging and complaining for weeks, I managed to get my husband to agree to go to our local big box hardware store and look for ways to make our space a little neater.
Up and down the rows we went, looking at various organizational options. There were cabinets, storage units and many different types of shelving. We'd discussed our needs and had already determined that we wanted this to be a once and done purchase, so we opted for steel shelving. We found the perfect size and made our purchases.
We loaded three heavy shelving units into our van and went home. Hubby took the boxes inside and sat them neatly on the garage floor. I was puzzled. For some reason, I assumed he'd start putting them together as soon as we got home, but he didn't. When I asked when he planned to assemble them, he told me he'd do it the following weekend. He'd been working a good deal of overtime and he was tired, so I didn't push.
This morning, I had the brilliant idea to put the shelves together and surprise him when he came in from work. I had slept well and was feeling energetic. After breakfast, I got dressed and made my way into the garage. As I looked at the boxes, I didn't think it would take long to assemble the units. Boy was I wrong!
The boxes weighed just under 50 pounds each. I struggled to drag one box off the stack and fought to open it. After quite a struggle, I managed to slide the box so that one end was elevated and shook the contents out.
It took quite a bit of time to maneuver the steel pieces into place. One by one, I whacked the sidebars into place with a hammer and a piece of two-by-four. This was not a one-person job, but I was determined to have the shelves completed by the time he came home, and I was going to figure out how to brace the shelves as I put first one end together and then the other.
The first unit took about an hour to complete since I was unfamiliar with the setup and the directions weren't very clear. As I put on the top shelf, I realized my arms had begun swelling. I'd forgotten to put on my compression sleeves before starting. Oh well, too late now. I kept working hoping the swelling wouldn't get worse.
As I began work on the second unit, I felt my energy level begin to dip. I'd been so full of energy only an hour ago. Why was I so tired now?
I made myself push through the fatigue and finally managed to get the second unit together. Now it was time to place all the items on the shelves and do some cleanup. I decided I'd save the third unit for another day. I just didn't have the strength to start on it today.
When I went into the house, after cleaning up the garage, I could barely walk. My back was killing me and my arms were really swollen. I knew I needed to slow down and take a rest. A hot bath with some Epsom salts should do the trick, along with some arthritis-strength ibuprofen.
Downing the pills with a large glass of water, I realized I was more tired than I'd first thought. I wondered if I could make it into the tub and out of it again.
As I sat in the hot water soaking the pains from my exertion away, I had to face the facts. I'm not as young as I used to be. But along with that reality came the fact that my body isn't the same as it once was a few years ago. My energy level has been greatly diminished since my bout with cancer. My body doesn't always want to do what I want it to do. It's hard to accept, but I'm finding it necessary to listen to my body and heed the warning cues it gives me.
In the middle of a project, sometimes I find myself getting extremely tired. It's more of an exhausted feeling that I can't quite describe. When I start to feel that overwhelming tiredness coming on, I know it won't be long before I'll have to stop what I'm doing and rest. This is very frustrating to me. I've always been a doer. I like to stay busy. But now I attribute my body's slowing down to both age and post-cancer fatigue.
Learning to accept my current physical limitations has been difficult. I don't always stop when my body tells me to. When I don't, I suffer the consequences, and sometimes, those consequences last for days. It's challenging to understand and accept the trauma my body's experienced since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It's even more difficult to realize this will be a lifelong challenge.
Change is never easy, and accepting post-cancer fatigue makes me feel very sad and frustrated. I want to be able to do the things I was once able to do. When I physically don't have the strength to do the things I want to do, I have to admit my life will never be the same. My body isn't the same. It's been cut open and stitched back together again. Layers and layers of muscle and tissue have been severed. Body parts have been removed. On top of that, my poor torso has been treated with radiation and poisonous chemicals.
When I think about the traumatic experiences my body has suffered as a result of breast cancer, it's a little easier to understand why my body has had to slow down.
I'm glad I'm finally learning to listen to my body instead of pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. I used to feel guilty about my lack of energy and would find myself apologizing for my inability to accomplish tasks. Now I know it's just part of my "new normal."
Yes, I'm getting older, too, but the majority of my physical limitations are a direct result of breast cancer. That was something I never expected and never wanted.
I'm thankful I can make the decision to stop when I need to now. I have learned the hard way to take good care of my body. Loving it and respecting its limitations is extremely important. And for those who think I'm using cancer as an excuse, shame on you. There's an old Native American saying that speaks volumes in this circumstance, "Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins." But I have to change that saying a little bit, if you don't mind. I say, "Never judge a breast cancer survivor, you never know when or if you may be diagnosed in the future."