(After a mastectomy, 4 rounds of AC, 3 rounds of Taxol and 6 Herceptin treatments the shock of my breast cancer seems to have worn off with my kids…)
I glanced down at the clock in my car, saw that it said 5:10, added the five minutes in my head to learn the actual time of 5:15, and announced with bravado to the 4 twelve year old boys crammed in the backseat,
“We are now officially late for practice,”
“Great.” said my son, Aidan, “Coach’ll make us run laps.”
“Tell him it’s your mother’s fault. I’ll take the blame.”
“Yah, I could play the cancer card,” he said, feeling like a big man in front of his soccer teammates.
” No, that’s not necessary,” I said, “besides…”
“Besides,” said my 9 -year -old daughter from the passenger seat, “She doesn’t even have cancer anymore.”
She said it as casually as if she had blown a soap bubble at me through a two -sided wand. I let the statement hang in the air a few seconds , opened my mouth, and shut it again. I decided not to correct her. Why not let her believe that?
See the truth is a little harder to explain. Most people don’t understand it, how could a little girl? The truth is that I will always have cancer. Just because my hair is back and I can run again and feel better doesn’t mean the cancer is gone. It just means,that my hair is back and I can run again and I feel better. The problem with breast cancer is that they are never sure if it is ever gone; especially when it is her2neu positive.I will never ever NOT have cancer. It doesn’t go away. It’s the reason they give you all that nasty chemo; because they can never be sure if one little cancer cell didn’t get loose and is festering in some deep dark bodily crevice . Those little cancer cells are insipid. (Isn’t insipid a great word? The word itself is so…well, insipid). They lurk. They hide. They multiply.
The question is not IF the cancer will come back but actually WHEN it will come back. I hear so often of women reaching their 5 year survivor-ship goal only to have the cancer recur the next year. Seven seems to be the number I hear a lot. It’s in that seventh year that the cancer rears it’s ugly head in either another breast or in the bones or in the brain. Just when you think you have beat it. Stages don’t really seem to matter either. I have read stories of woman with stage 1 breast cancer with recurences in a year in the brain. And yes, I have heard wonderful stories like the woman at Walden who is a 12 year survivor and others who have lead full wonderful lives. But even 12 years out, I am sure that woman thinks about cancer every time she has an ache or pain and every time she has a fever.
See this is something I never knew before. I always assumed, like my daughter, and I am sure a majority of well-intentioned people that you got cancer and either a) you died from it, or b) they cured you. I never understood the third option c) that they treat you, you recover from the treatment, and then live your life with the continuous nagging thought that some day it will return. I never understood how cancer messes with your head. The doctors will check me periodically to see if there is cancer in certain places that they can see; like my other breast or my cervix, but they won’t know whether or not the cancer has returned to other spots in my body until I become symptomatic. If my bones start to hurt they will give me a bone scan or if I lose my balance and forget pertinent information then they will give me a brain scan. Otherwise, I am just left to my own resources. Left to years full of endless dark nights of wondering and worrying.
There was a listing in Parade Magazine this past Sunday of the 10 things to do for someone you know who has cancer. One of them mentioned a couple on their way into a chemotherapy session. This man and wife met their pastor who asked the woman how she was doing, to which the husband replied, “She’s doing great. She is going to be fine.” The wife turned to her husband and told him that that was very easy for him to say since at night he would roll over and go to sleep while she laid awake in the dark worrying about all the things that were not “fine.”
So I must get used to the fact that I will always have cancer. I look forward to a time, and have read that this will happen, when there will be whole days in my future where I won’t even think about that fact. My cancer may not recur for many years, or it may be next year. This I do not know. For now I will have to let my daughter think that I do not have cancer any more because it makes her feel better. As a matter of fact, It makes everyone feel better.