A Simple Task Brought on an Unexpected Cancer Flashback

I was recently making myself lunch when suddenly, I was hit by an unexpected flashback to my daughter’s breast cancer experience.

This past weekend, I made myself a toasted turkey and bacon sandwich for lunch. As I was finishing putting it together, my body started to feel weird, like I was there but not there. I stood frozen in place for a few minutes trying to get my hands to move to pick up the plate and then I felt my eyes well up with tears.

And then the “oh yeah” moment happened.

This was my go-to quick lunch when I was living with my 27-year-old daughter as she went through cancer treatment.

Oct. 8 marked the three-year anniversary of the end of chemotherapy for my girl’s triple-positive breast cancer diagnosis. In the first little while when I went home after all the phases of active treatment were done, I experienced all kinds of triggers that took me back to the nightmare of watching her body suffer the impact of the poison that they needed to pump into her veins to keep her alive.

As time has passed, I’ve been able to put most of them on a shelf in a corner of my mind that lets me look at a pink ribbon or a bag of M&M’s and not feel my body reel from the associated pain I felt seeing the devastation of it all.

I guess I missed the toasted turkey and bacon sandwich.

How do I explain that reaction to anyone who hasn’t watched someone they love more than life go through what my daughter did? The simple answer is that I can’t. For the rest of the world, all of this happened long enough ago that it shouldn’t be a part of my thoughts anymore. She’s still here, she’s still NED-T — no evidence of disease (I always add a T for “today”) — and both of our lives have moved forward.

Yet, I still get snapped back into one of the worst times of my life from seeing, or smelling, or hearing or tasting the most mundane things.

I remember watching a movie where a character lost a loved one and started to weep when he saw a basket of pears. I thought that was great theater, but now I know how much that scene spoke truth to what it’s like to carry the invisible wounds that grief inflicts on our bodies and minds.

When I was living with my daughter I still ate, I still watched TV, I still marveled at the wonders of nature when colors changed, or the first snow fell. Much of my day-to-day was ordinary, with the one overarching extraordinary fact that my child was facing down a monster.

So, I imagine that I looked up from taking a bite of a turkey bacon sandwich one day and saw her laying on the couch in misery wondering if she was going to be able to walk into the oncology ward the next time, and the time after that. And the time after that.

It’s not that I am not grateful. Gratitude isn’t a powerful enough word to describe what it’s like for me to pull her into my arms and breathe her in. But as I am pulling her in, I see the lymphedema sleeve she will have to wear for the rest of her life. I see the skin that still causes her problems from radiation recall dermatitis. I see the face that is wise beyond its years because when you’re 27 and facing your mortality, you get a pretty good shot at revisiting your priorities and adjusting them accordingly.

And I grieve.

I’ve made room on the shelf for the sandwich. I’m not sure when I will make one again, since it’s still a little raw to think about it. Maybe I’ll be able to eat one sometime in the future or maybe it will go the way of the chocolate I can’t eat anymore. I’ll keep you posted.


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