I’m two years past my last chemo treatment, with no signs of the cancer returning. YAY!
Along with celebrating, I’ve been reflecting on my cancer adventure and the reality that my scars remind me of every day. The scars have faded some, but the memory of why they exist hasn’t.
My cancer and subsequent treatments made me vulnerable in a way I’d never been before. While I’ve been bound and determined to not lose the essence of me, the disease and treatments robbed me of strength, my high energy, much of my confidence, and my love of chocolate; and as substitutes, gave me lingering nausea, fatigue, neuropathy in my feet, a twitchy leg, brain fog, and a love of spinach. (I’ll admit, maybe the chocolate-for-spinach trade is for the better!)
I know people whose journeys have been much tougher and longer than mine, and I lost my sister and other loved ones to the disease, so even as I carry survivor’s guilt I’m incredibly thankful to be alive! But let’s face it, chemo is poison and no matter how much is infused into your body, there are going to be effects for an extended period of time. I have to deal with my reality of the fallout from ovarian cancer and the systemic, platinum-based chemo pumped into me to kill the disease. Every exam and blood test is now charged with latent anxiety. What if my oncologist tells me it’s back, or that there might be cancer growing somewhere else in my body? She tells me it’s normal for cancer survivors to feel this way and helps me cope.
I’m vulnerable in the hands of my doctors. I have to be. They are professionals with knowledge and experience. I don’t put on my public face with them, and I tell them everything that’s going on with my body and relevant mental issues. How else can they help me if I’m not transparent and honest with them? I have placed my trust in them, knowing full well that they too are human, and it is up to me to be informed with reliable and accurate information (thanks to the librarians I work with, I know how important sources are and how to sift through the misinformation on the internet). I need to ask the right questions and understand the answers.
Acknowledging that I’m vulnerable has also given me some freedom I didn’t feel before.
I’ve found freedom to advocate for myself and say no, even to things I want to do, in order to take care of myself. If I overdo it, I have to spend days resting. Managing my energy is my new normal and I have to do so very strategically. Sometimes I get really down that I can’t go and do all that I want (like join a friend in Australia for an art excursion on camels), and I have to claw my way out of that dark mental pit. It’s not on me to prove to the world that I’m a strong and amazing person who can go run a marathon. (That was never going to happen, cancer or not, because I HATE running!) If other people think I’m a wimp, so what?! I’d rather spend a day laying paver paths in the backyard so my dog doesn’t get so muddy.
My newfound freedom has manifest itself most vividly in making art. I don’t think about whether or not people will like or buy what I create, and I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I’m free to try ideas that stretch me out of my comfort zone and fail miserably, or succeed wildly! I strive to carry out my vision and feel the experience in my soul. Each image of an installation takes me back to that place and moment in space and time, and is seared in my memory just as my scars are on my body.
5 thoughts on “Vulnerable (thoughts)”
Wonderful post, Jennifer! I have a friend is struggling with many of same things (and even more since she’s a writer and the “brain fog” really makes writing hard), and I’m going to send her this link. You are so courageous and generous to share your experience and take away something positive from it.
Thanks, Mary! Brain fog is very frustrating. Best wishes to your friend, and I hope her brain fog starts clearing.
Thank you so much for this post! I’m the friend Mary mentioned above, and I’m so glad she sent me your post. I’m three years out from chemo, surgery, and radiation (in my case, it was breast cancer), and I have the same problems with energy and brain fog.
I really appreciate your honesty. As cancer survivors, we’re called “heroes” and told how strong we are. I often feel as if I should live up to those expectations. The media – or is it the medical profession? – makes it seem as if cancer treatment is just something we endure before going back to our ordinary, everyday lives. But for me, nothing was ever ordinary again.
That’s both good and bad; I have a new appreciation for every day, but I’m also less able to enjoy it because of the lingering side effects.
The good news is that after three years, I feel like the fog is clearing. I still have issues with fatigue, but I’m able to write again, although my process had to change radically because of my short-term memory issues. I think it’s working, and meanwhile a walk in the woods is a miracle.
But oh, camels! I’m sorry you missed that trip, but you’re wise to stick to the pavers. Home is as much of a miracle as anywhere once you’ve been through cancer. And I envy you your mud-free dogs!
Hi Joanne! Thank you for your comments! You are so right about nothing being ordinary again and the pressure to be heroic. I think that is especially true for you breast cancer survivors due to the incredible pink marketing. I’m really glad you’re able to write again and have found a way to deal with your new normal! I found writing this post helped me cope with some lingering emotions, even though it took several months because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to reveal so much. Feel free to write me anytime you need an understanding soul – honesty is always welcome. Keep on writing and sharing your storytelling gift! You’ve lifted my spirit!
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