Nothing ever really ends, even when the treatment journey has wrapped up the memories of cancer are everywhere.
When my daughter, who is in her mid-twenties, was diagnosed with breast cancer I was able to move across the country to live with her during treatment.She told me halfway through chemotherapy that she thought she’d have to move into another apartment when treatment was done because she would see the memories of cancer everywhere.
The couch she curled up on with her bald head in my lap during chemotherapy, the shower she stood in while I helped her wash the half of her body she couldn’t get to because of surgical incisions that had yet to heal or the bedroom she hid in when the realities of her existence were so huge that she had no room for my energy. Her home has always been her refuge from the world and although she loved her apartment, cancer had invaded every inch of that space. She knew it would be impossible to clear it all away.
In the end, she did move not only out of her apartment but to a completely different suburb. She found that the memories that triggered her distress were not only in her house, but they were in the stores we went to, the paths we walked upon to make sure her heart was strong and the roads we drove to get back and forth to the hospital more times than she could count. We both know that she will never be able to completely leave cancer behind, but we are grateful that the rooms she is stuck inside like the rest of us right now don’t have reminders of me rushing her a bucket because it was getting that close.
I was much luckier, because I left all of that behind when she finished treatment and I moved back home. Yet I find that while geography has not put me in the same places, the triggers surround me nonetheless. I can’t escape them. They are everywhere.
They are hanging in my closet. They are on my television screen. They are on billboards I pass on the freeway. They are on the shelves in the grocery store, where I stand in front of an array of products just to see one, we would buy in the hope that it would appeal to her when nothing appealed, tears streaming down my face.
They are in the faces of young women I see as I roll through my days, often having to resist telling them to make sure they check their breasts when they shower—because I know they think it can’t happen to them. They are in a song I hear through my headphones. It freezes me in place as it flashes me back to sitting in a room while IV infusion pumps beeped incessantly, while we waited for a nurse to come and switch a chemo bag.
A cancer diagnosis is a traumatic event for everyone involved, and as with most traumatic events, there are things big and small that pull us back into the distress as if it was happening right now. I have found that when I’m sucked into those black holes two things are very important.
One is to make sure that I tell whoever is with me what is going on. I can go from zero to sixty in less than .08 seconds and it can be shocking to my husband when he turns around and I am weeping over a container of pudding, when a few seconds ago I was laughing with him about something. The other is to let it be okay that I am there. I know it won’t last forever; I know that given some time I will move past the moment.
I tried to fight the emotion at the beginning because I felt like others wouldn’t understand or think I was being a drama queen, and it would build to the point that I would be completely overwhelmed by a small decision and find it hard to function. Now, I let it wash over me as it comes and accept that it’s part of my healing process.If the tears come, I know that as I swipe a tissue across my face as they trickle down some of the despair is wiped away with them.
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