Finding My Way
BY Carol Derewitz
PUBLISHED July 16, 2019
It is a challenging thing to have a cancer diagnosis. First it's a blur when given the diagnosis, agreeing to treatment, and making it through those treatments. There is no time to process feelings. It is time only to fight for life. It is mostly a time to focus on getting through each day. At least it was for me.
The tumor in my breast was aggressive, so therefore so was my treatment. Very much so. Many days during that year I wondered if I would survive to see if the treatment was successful. But day by day, surrounded by love and support, I completed my treatment. Well, let's say that I completed that part of my treatment. Then enters the intensive time of surveillance.
Soon after my diagnosis, a friend whose wife is a fighting survivor told me that a cancer diagnosis is a life sentence. I did not find that encouraging. All I could think about then was how to make it through each day, certainly not a lifetime! Sadly, I now know he was right. My task in these early years of remission is to remain vigilant, no denial allowed, if I want my treatment plan to be successful.
I began this journey with diagnosis in late April 2015, surgery in early May 2015, chemotherapy June 2015-June 2016, radiation December-January 2016. I also had surgery for a small bowel obstruction February 10, 2016. I had my port removed in June 2016. As I began to recover some strength, I developed a herniated disk and had surgery for nerve decompression September 2016, followed by a spinal fusion in January 2017. Well, then!!! I remained very iron deficient until I had 2 iron infusions in February 2017. Finally by August 2017 my hemoglobin rebounded. Until this time my energy level was very low. My endurance was shot. It was then that my new work could begin, to face and process the myriad of emotions from this very, very long time.
My precious therapist had retired before we could begin to process and integrate all that had happened. Gratefully, she returned to her practice one day a week! She had travelled with me through the two years of hellish demands. We have begun this new work, to grieve losses and fears, and how to now traverse life of cancer surveillance. I have neuropathy in both legs from my knees down. Both feet are affected. Adding this to loss of proprioception in both knees from joint replacements and loss of physical strength put me at risk for falls. In November 2017 I had a very bad fall just walking to a restaurant with my dear friend of 50 years. We were merely walking and talking when I unexplainably crashed face down onto the pavement. I did not know I fell until sharp pain hit my cheekbone! This was my literal moment of hitting rock bottom. I had lost all stamina and could not even trust that I could safely walk! I was angry and sad.
But I used this moment to say enough is enough! I. Want. My. Life. Back. Because of the nature of the fall, my spinal surgeon ordered 3 MRI's to make sure I had no spinal metastasis. And here I was. The reality of cancer surveillance became crystal clear! I cried through the rest of my appointment and all through scheduling the tests I hated and had so many of already! These tests were clear of cancer. So my physical rehab could begin. Taking this action was therapeutic. This was finally something I could do to influence my physical recovery! My balance and strength were shot. And so I have begun. And I am seeing results, which is empowering. I have been improving food choices, cutting out processed foods, white flour (most of the time), and restricting sugar intake. These are concrete actions I can from take. That is important to me. I see my oncologist every 6 months and my breast specialist every 6 months. Logistically this means I see someone every 3 months. This intense schedule is a combination of reassurance and anxiety. I am in the high risk period of remission because of the aggressive tumor marker.
Last Monday at my oncology appointment I told Dr. T that it is my intention for 2018 to take my life back. Moments later he discovered a new lymph node above my clavicle, above where lymph node #3 was found on a PET scan before starting chemo. That finding had changed my cancer stage 2C to 3C. Let's just say that the tenor of the visit rapidly changed. I asked if this was a recurrence, what would the treatment be. Much to my horror, Dr. T said it would be the same as the course I had finished....surgery, chemo the same for a year and radiation. Dan and I faced the next 3 days trying not to jump ahead, yet sick at the threat. They were not 3 good days! My report was online Thursday morning. Before I could open the report, I felt like throwing up. The grateful relief was that the node did not light up on the scan AND there was no suspicious activity from my brain to my knees! I saw Dr. T a few hours later. He was visibly relieved and a bit apologetic when on exam he discovered that the lymph node was GONE! He said that had my initial appointment been on Thursday instead of Monday, we would not have had to go through the torture. But at least (and not really the least at all!), we could all know that all systems are clear! Dan and I obviously are beyond thankful and relieved.
I had to wear such armor during the chemo and radiation time. Over the ensuing time since then, more pieces of armor have been shed. But the experience last week caused shed armor to rattle and return. Thus I see that that process will happen anytime a threat of cancer recurrence lifts its ugly head. There is a saying that Time Takes Time. It is my hope and prayer that as time passes, the stress of surveillance diminishes as I move farther out from the horrible memories. When I came into Recovery from my addiction in 1985, my life was turned upside down. Everything was changed. I could not go back to who and how I was before that treatment. The first year was absolutely awful! But it got better and better over time.
At first I didn't know how I could do it. And it got easier and my life grew in ways I could never have imagined. I knew I could never go through another first year like that again. But I also knew that I would never give that experience back again, because my new life was better than I could ever have imagined. And so might it be that as time passes I can see more rewards than pain in this cancer journey. 2015-2017 demanded so much.
But I am still here. I am still alive, about to celebrate another birthday. I want to learn more and more to embrace the exquisiteness of time...time with Dan, time with my beautiful daughters, time with my precious granddaughter, time with my extended family, time with my dearest friends. My dear friend Frannie asked me if maybe HOPE was the outcome of my suffering. I like that! Here is to Hope and the faith to believe!