The First “Next”

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I have this new pink ribbon on my back pack.

The reason I just added it is for all the obvious reasons.  Plus one more.

After everything I’ve been through, I guess I thought–subconsciously, deep in my cute little ego–that since I had already gone through cancer and treatment and come out a survivor, that it was over and that was the last I would ever hear about cancer again for me or for anyone else.  I took one for the team after all.

But that’s not reality.

I have to worry about it almost every day (sometimes I give myself a break from worry, like a mini-vacay) and what’s more is that other people can get cancer.  WHAT?

Chris C’s mom is the first person I heard about getting breast cancer after finishing my battle.  She’s the first “next” in my life.  And truth be told I haven’t ever met her (but she did a great job with her son, my coworker,  and we have this boob thing in common so we’re practically family now).

This news comes, ironically, right after getting a skipping stone from Lauryl.  It’s a rock from Relay for Life that I am to give to the next person I meet/know/hear about having cancer to help give that person hope.  I’m talking two days ago I received this rock.  In person.  And then I hear about my first “next.”  If you don’t believe in the power of the universe and/or God/Jesus/Allah/the Higher Power/Fate/Karma then here is some proof that there is some other magic going on out there (or just stop reading, or keep reading and I will not talk too much about those aforementioned specifics except for maybe the power of the universe, which, if you have read the Alchemist, my favorite book, then you know how it works… or do you?  Or do I even know?  What just happened?)  Accept the mystery, I suppose, revel in it.

As much as I would like to wish this whole cancer thing away, we are so obviously not there yet.  It’s getting better–the research, the treatment, the options, the conversations–but we have a long way to go.  Right now is the critical time for advocacy, to help those going through it and those who are the close support group of those going through it.

What spoke volumes to me was getting texts from coworkers ready to cover shifts before I had even gotten a chance to read my email from Chris about why he had to dash off island (unfortunately, he had another more tragic reason to depart and so I am doubly sad for him).  The people I work with–and this goes for every job I’ve had–are amazing.  I love them.  Yup, it’s true.  They are my family.  I love to see them happy and successful.  Sure, I love when they have name tags on and close-toed shoes (oh, you knew that would be in here!) but more than anything I love to see them shining.  I love to see them helping each other out and not because they were told to but because they are such good, cool, awesome, smart, funny, caring, kind, considerate people.

I like to see them furthering their careers and reaching their potential.  I like to see them aiming for distant goals.  I like to sit in my kayak at work and come up with career options for them (for Chris, I determined he needs to host his own show in Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, we are currently seeking people that can make this happen!).  Oh, don’t worry, work, I’m still monitoring the snorkel skills of passengers while I’m in the kayak.  I can multi-task.

Sometimes I consider a career in HR or career advocacy because I like this so much but then how would I get to surround myself with these cool oceany sciencey piratey people?  (According to spell check, I just made up three words!  Amazing).

Adding “word inventor” to resume.

Oh, I’m back now.

Anyway, those people are rocks.  They–we–will support Chris as he supports his mum.

Now is the time where I have to admit to you that I got out of bed at 11:30 pm (way past my 9:00 pm bed time) to write this because I couldn’t sleep and it’s now 12:15 am and I have to be up in five hours to work with all of the above-mentioned people.  I could not sleep until I got this out of my brain.  And also note I’ve been in wedding planning mode slash the-final-twenty-eight-days-count-down-to-Mrs.-Sultan-hood-aka-marriage-aka-nuptials.  Let’s just say don’t ask me too many complicated questions over the next few weeks!

Thank you, I love you, and good night!

Oh, and Mrs. C, you now have 150 more people thinking about you, praying for you and wishing you a quick and clean fight, go get ’em!

Finally: Hope

Today I finally learned that important lesson: Cancer is not a death sentence.

I will always be looking over my shoulder but I will not allow it to make me forget to live and enjoy life.

The two weeks following dose one were all over the board.  I did not get too many of the classic side effects; instead I received many of the weirder, harder to classify ones.

Some days I couldn’t focus my eyes back and forth from the TV far away to my cell phone in my hand, it took a little extra time and effort.

Some days I was so foggy and hazy in my head I felt lost.  I felt like I was losing my self, my personality, my intelligence.  The one hobby I have followed through and through in life, that goes everywhere with me, is reading books and I couldn’t even read a book!  They call this “chemo brain.”  It comes with slight forgetfullness, like “what was I supposed to get?” but then worse because I forgot not just the item but the getting it part too.  Mom says she gets this some times!

Some days I was weak and tired with the slightest movement.

And some days my brain was raging in a washing machine of doom and gloom emotions, trying to understand all of this shit, the mental anguish of is this the drugs making me crazy and will it ever go away.  At one point, I was in Walmart and I found myself overwhelmed with anxiety at just being there; I felt so out of it.  All I wanted to do was put my arms out straight and run through people while screaming back, “It’s OK!  I have cancer and I have no idea why, but I need to do this!”  So weird!  No one tells you about the emotional roller coaster that comes with high dosages of drugs that could kill you coupled with trying to understand a disease that could kill you.  Maybe they should have added a psychiatrist to my pre-chemo prep.

Thankfully, I mean thankfully, the last few days have been amazing.  I mean truly great.  I have felt like my old usual self: human and upbeat, conversational, interested in doing things and able to do those things, optimistic.  It felt like the light at the end of the tunnel finally existed.  At last, chemo didn’t feel like a never-ending mystery torture chamber: there was an end to the personality-dimmer switch.  It takes a lot of bad days followed but just a few good days to erase the crazy.  Phew.

Though I must warn–a warning that I too have to keep in mind–that even though I feel great, like the drugs are fully flushed out of my system, chemo is cumulative and today we just added another layer, another dosage.  I could have different side effects or new side effects or at a worse level.  Luckily, the nurses told me my body handled the drugs amazingly well (and like the good rule-follower I’ve always been, I did all the at-home treatment to the T).  I could also–to give fair due credit to the other end of the spectrum–feel the same or better this time around.  Though, there is the false nagging belief that there must be a correlation with the worse I feel meaning the better at kicking cancer’s ass these drugs are.  Otherwise, I will just have to resort to Jedi mind tricks to take down cancer cells.

I still have to worry constantly about germs.  I used to NEVER wash my hands except in public restrooms but then Ashleigh made fun of me (how long ago was that, Ash, 4 years?) and called me out on it so I became better at it; now I am even better!  After potty, petting dogs, handling money, touching any questionable surfaces.  I have to stay away from crowds and sick people (and friends, you have to stay away from me if you’re not feeling well!).  One askew germ could knock me on my ass and into the hospital.

Right now after dose two I feel pretty good; Sean says I seem to be handling it better.  The unknown was the scariest part.  That’s really what it comes down to; I know that now.  All these potential side effects and stories from others (which are still very helpful so do not take this to mean that I do not want to hear it… I like to hear the stories and the research, I just have to remind myself that just because it happened to one person doesn’t mean it will happen to me) had me worried and curious and scared.  But I could never know what I was in for until I experienced it.  Oh, I experienced it.  It’s not fun but it’s doable.  And I’m halfway through the hardest part!

I have always been fairly goal-oriented, driven, and optimistic in my approach to and living of life.  But when the Doctor said cancer, everything came crashing down and it just felt like life was over, my dreams and wants were over.  I will never again have the naturally occurring luxury of a false sense of security of good health, a long life and guaranteed survival to geriatrics.  And really, we all know somewhere inside of us that, yes, at some point, each of us will die.  It’s just so much nicer to assume that death will come late in life from old age, after we’ve had our chance to do a whole lot!

But no one promised us when we were born that we would get X amount of time.  It’s anyone’s guess.  When did we lose sight of that?

It’s not fun to have this extra worry; I want desperately to get through chemo and and hormone therapy and be done.  But the “just be done” isn’t a realistic request on this new life obstacle course.  I will have that mentioned above, and constant monitoring over time and somewhere in there I have to create peace of mind.  Otherwise, I will lose a piece of my mind!  Or all of it 🙂

There are so many people in this world living with cancer.  And people living with other diseases and troubles.  We each have to make some kind of peace with the shit we’ve been handed and then get through it.  I believe it’s called acceptance.  I chose to take my acceptance with a side of red velvet cupcakes!  Well, one cupcake for now.

“Acceptance of one’s life has nothing to do with resignation; it does not mean running away from the struggle. On the contrary, it means accepting it as it comes, with all the handicaps of heredity, of suffering, of psychological complexes and injustices.”

~Paul Tournier

All that acceptance is a whole lot easier with a good support system around me; Sean, mom and dad, Erik and Ethan and Lisa, family and friends, friends of friends, strangers who become new friends, even cute puppy dogs who just need to wag their tails to make me feel better!  And when I was still searching for hope, you guys carried me through.  Thank you.

When I am feeling my worst, I focus on all of the negativity: why me, what if it comes back, why so young, why does it have to be the “aggressive” kind, why is there no machine to tell me exactly where it is in me down to the individual drifting cancer cell (yeah, I didn’t say they were all totally rational thoughts), what if I look goofy without hair, ugh it will take forever for my hair to grow back, what if my hair starts to grow back but then the cancer comes back and I have to do more chemo and lose it again?!?!?!  Oh, the thoughts are poisonous little beasts!  Like I fell into a pit of rattlesnakes with their venomous bites and I can’t crawl out.  (I like snakes but in the one-at-a-time and out-of-a-cage style; not in the pit-of-hostility-and-venom way!).

The good news is that when I am feeling my best, I focus on all of the good things: I caught it early (that’s my false sense of control coupled with a dose of hope since it was me who found it; did someone up in heaven help me find it?; did the universe step in?), it was small, it was only in the sentinel lymph node and not detected further in my nodes, it sucks that I have to do chemo but maybe we’re treating nothing because it’s actually all gone, I gave up the boob so there is less area for cancer cells to harass in that area, I’m halfway through the toughest part of chemo and there were good days in there, I did well on my blood tests (striving for better next time via healthy diet when I feel good in the tummy and vitamin B6 to prep for the next round o’ chemo).

I’ve always been on the optimism side of things and this diagnosis has really challenged that feature in me; I am overjoyed to know that it’s still in me, that cancer and chemo didn’t take it, it was just buried under some shit and needed some finding and dusting.  Hopefully, knowing that I can find it again will carry me through the dark days hidden on the chemo trail.

It’s not easy.  There’s no guarantees.  It’s life.  So lets just do this.