Life After Cancer

Seven years ago, March 18 was a sunny, but cold Friday, and while many people were sleeping off their St. Patrick’s Day hangovers, I was driving to the hospital where I knew I would be told my breast biopsy showed cancer cells.

Why else the surgeon would have wanted to see me immediately? That day. Before she went on vacation for a week.

She took time off; I took a major detour.

So this is my cancerversary, a day I note each March in quiet gratitude I’m here to mark another year’s passage.

My life now is quite different from what it was on that chilly Friday.

No longer a full-time library manager, I am instead a retired librarian and part-time grocery associate at a local store.

When I realized I was looking upon my writing career as yet another thing I had to do, I stopped writing romance. I have only so many moments left in my life, and reasoned if I wasn’t making money at the endeavor and no longer enjoying it, the time had come to stop. Instead, I focused on making sure all my Cancer Lessons were re-written and posted on this blog.

Then, I started another one.

I also began working again on my family tree, I share here the first lesson in genealogy: It’s an endless pursuit because for every person you identify, there are two more to work on — their parents. I’m back five generations and still going.

Darling Daughter — who guarded me as I recovered from surgery by carefully timing my visitors — is a college graduate with a full-time supervisory position at a library (at 23!). She’s built an adult life and peopled it with friends, a book club, and a soccer team. It seems I’ve passed on not only my career field, but my shin guards too. And I’m only half-joking when I say she’s Kym 2.0.

Partly to fill the void she left, The Engineer and I started beekeeping (hence, the name of my new blog). It would be a good hobby to share, we thought, a new activity we could do together, one that would force us to learn something new.

It’s been that and more.

To answer your unspoken question, yes, the bees are still alive (so far). And no, we didn’t get any honey last year. For more, you’ll have to read The Byrd and the Bees.

People I don’t see very often still ask (in that oh-so-meaningful tone of voice), “How are you?”

The answer is “Just fine and hoping to stay that way.”

Physically, I’m much the same as before cancer. There are a few exceptions.

  • My hair, eyebrows, and lashes seem thinner.
  • If I stretch very hard, I feel my scars pull.
  • I still wear a lymph sleeve when exercising or flying.
  • I’m a little weaker, especially in my arms (for this, I can only blame me — for not being morally strong enough to force my lazy self to do push ups).

On a spiritual level, I’m better at remembering what’s important — family, friends, trying to stay healthy. If I occasionally lose focus of this, it’s not for long.

When I reflect on these changes, I wonder how many are the result of having had cancer, and how many are just because I’ve gotten older.

I don’t know.

I do know having cancer as a part of my past keeps me aware of how I spend time in the present. And remembering the friends I’ve lost to the disease reminds me I am fortunate to be here to ask that question.

I’m pretty sure they’d tell me not to waste my time worrying about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cancer Lesson 10-9A:It Doesn’t Matter What Color the Ribbon Is

Cancer Lesson 10-9A

Cancer Lesson 10-9A: A guest post by my friend Pat Rainey
You may notice the lesson number is out of sequence. That’s because 10/9 was the day Pat got her first all clear scan after surgery and chemo.

English: A teal ribbon, which is an awareness ...

English: A teal ribbon, which is an awareness ribbon for Ovarian cancer (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).

It Doesn’t Matter What 
Color the Ribbon Is

It sure is pink a lot this month–almost everywhere, and that’s great!  It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we should see pink wherever we turn.  But let’s not forget some of the rarer, lesser-seen cancers that we should also keep in mind.  Here’s a link to a chart of many of the different cancers and their support colors:  http://www.rose-colored-glasses.com/colors.html 

No matter what comes before it, breast, colon, prostate, liver, ovarian, CANCER is a scary word and the second question you ask yourself is “How did these rogue cells get into MY body?”  Sometimes you can figure out why; most of the time there is no answer to that question.  Suddenly you look around for your color of ribbon and you hope to see it everywhere so you know people are trying NOT to let it happen to the next unsuspecting person.  You buy a few new pieces for your wardrobe, or a new shade of nail polish to remind yourself (as if you could forget) of a new obligation on your part–to advocate, pay it forward, and protect the next person from having to go through what you’re facing.

The lavender ribbon is the support color for ALL cancer awareness, and maybe we should paint the world lavender.  Or maybe we should each educate ourself in our specific colors and do what we can to advocate for more research, more funding, better treatments.  Often, a drug or treatment that is useful for one type of cancer can be used to treat another kind, or modified to target a different cancer cell.  Progress IS being made every day, and whatever color ribbon we wear, any advancement is an accomplishment.

Kym’s note: As a good example of what Pat’s talking about, I was unable to find royalty-free clip-art of a lavender ribbon. I chose teal because last month was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I saw very little of the color anywhere.  I also chose to display it in Pat’s memory. She died early last year. 

Cancer Lesson #20: Leave Your Modesty at the Door

Cancer Lesson #20: Leave your modesty at the door.

By the time I met my plastic surgeon (and, yes, it still feels weird to be able to use that phrase), I’d realized a lot (and I mean a lot) of people would be looking at (and probably touching) my boobs in the next year or so.

Thus, when Dr. K2 asked if he could take photos to document his work, I unhesitatingly took off my shirt, stood in front of a blue cloth and allowed my breasts to be photographed for posterity. (A little over a year later, we repeated the process for the “after” shots.)

And that was just the beginning. When I was in the hospital after my surgery, it sometimes felt like I was hosting a parade of interns, each of them interested in one thing – my newly reconstructed right breast.

I’m not exaggerating. My breast surgeon had at least two interns checking in on me, and my plastic surgeon had four or five, all making the daily rounds. Plus there were regular checks (hourly at first) by the nursing staff.

So, if you’re beginning breast cancer treatment and possess even a shred of modesty, I’d suggest you leave it at the door.

More recently, my oncologist has mentioned several times how a TRAM reconstruction tends to age more naturally (read: Your TRAM boob will sag just like your non-TRAM one). He mentioned seeing pictures at conferences that demonstrate this.

It crossed my mind that photos of my breasts have probably been displayed at plastic surgery conferences.

I find this kind of funny. Who would have thought I’d be a pinup girl after all these years? And after all my breasts have been through, they deserve a little extra attention, especially if it helps plastic surgeons do an equally good job on someone else in the future.

LBJ

Lyndon Johnson shows his surgery scars. Photo from Briscoe Center for American History (if you can’t read the overlay!)

Cancer Lesson #10: It’s OK to Share Your Story on Social Media

Cancer Lesson #10: It’s okay to share your story on social media (if you want to). 

It’s a surprisingly effective means of sharing the news of your diagnosis and updates about treatment.

God knows, I never thought I’d break such horrible news to most of my friends via Facebook.

I mean, be serious. How freaking impersonal would that be?

Not very impersonal at all, as it turned out.

You see, I didn’t want anyone to think they were being underhanded if they shared my news. My getting cancer didn’t seem to warrant that kind of secrecy, and by broadcasting it on Facebook, I was sent the message that it was okay to tell people who might want to know.

So, after I told my family, my closest friends, and most of my co-workers, I put the news out there on good ole’ FB, and it worked out pretty darned well.

By the time I went into surgery, I think I was on every prayer chain in a two hundred mile radius. I know I had the support of everyone I knew.

Laugh if you will. I know my speedy recovery was due in part to those prayers, healing thoughts and good karma

Soon afterwards, I began blogging about the experience in what eventually became the cancer lessons you’re now reading.

But this type of public sharing isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay too. One thing I learned again and again is cancer is different for everyone.

 

Cancer Lesson #6: All Shall Be Well and All Shall Be Well. All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

Cancer Lesson #6: “All shall be well and all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.” — Julian of Norwich

Also, John Lennon: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

I believed it then and still do. One way or another.

Cancer Lesson #5: Everyone Reacts Differently

Cancer Lesson #5: Everyone reacts differently.

The doctor’s office called early on Friday, March 18 2011. She wanted to see me as soon as possible, early that morning if I could manage it.

Better to face bad news sooner rather than later, I thought, and agreed I’d come as soon as I got dressed. From the timing of the call and the urgency in the secretary’s voice, I knew my diagnosis was cancer. The only surprise was one of my lumps — sorry, masses — was nothing. The one I’d found was cancerous, and the third was an engaged lymph node (not good news).

I didn’t cry — not then and not much later — focusing instead on what would happen next.

It’s so weird to find out you have cancer, to learn that your body is harboring something that, if left unchecked, will kill you, especially when, like me, you have no symptoms. You feel as if you’ve slipped into an alternate reality, kind of like the suspension of disbelief you experience when watching a movie or reading a book.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and the analogy I keep coming back to is that of a train. You’re on this train, following the same track day after day, when click, you’re switched to a completely different route. All the other trains continue on the main line while you take a detour over some rough but scenic rails. Perhaps you’ll rejoin the fast track again, perhaps not. Nobody knows, but for now at least, this new track is your only way forward.

Everyone reacts differently, not only emotionally but physically too — this is a lesson I’ve learned again and again. The range of possible emotions is so wide — everything from anger to fear to outright disbelief. There is no one right way to feel.

I remember driving home thinking, “I should be crying. Why am I not crying?” but all I could think of was how I would have to ask someone else to captain my soccer team and where and when I could tell my family. I decided to tell my husband that night, but not my daughter. She’d just gotten her driver’s license the night before. That’s such a milestone. I couldn’t ruin it for her so quickly.

It was thoughts of her that brought the only tears to my eyes that day, when Dr. S suggested I be tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2. She recommended this course of action because I was “young” and one of my aunts also got breast cancer early, and then got it again thirty years later.

The idea that I might have passed on such a gene to my only child scared me more than anything else I might have to face.