Wednesday, January 5, 2011

After Cancer

Let me hear of your loving-kindness in the morning, for I put my trust in you; show me the road that I must walk, for I lift up my soul to you.
Psalm 143:8 bcp

I needed this verse more after I finished treatment than I did during the Fridays of Taxol and cisplatin. Then, I knew where I had to walk—straight to my navy recliner in the chemo room, to hours of talking with new friends who understood who I was now more than some people I’d known for many years did.
For me and for many, finishing chemo was a case of “Goodbye treatment, hello post-traumatic stress.” Treatment wasn’t any fun . . . but it did require a lot of energy and determination, and it bought us a lot of attention. Now we are whole, or reconstructed, and everyone has disappeared. Our regimen has changed, too; the calendar isn’t filled with chemo or radiation appointments or blood draw reminders. On top of that, we’ve lost the camaraderie of our nurses and our new chemo buddies. We had finally found a place to be completely real, where we could discuss anything deemed not polite conversation: baldness, constipation, mouth sores—nothing was too private. Suddenly, happily, we are told we are in remission and free for three months.
            I had a hard time with that, frankly. In some ways it was harder than adjusting to treatment, to having cancer. I had all this free time—Fridays were no longer built around trips to the hospital. I was slowly regaining strength and hair—and my friends called less often and stopped cooking for me.
            Now that I wasn’t actively in treatment, who was I? I certainly couldn’t go back to the old ways of thinking. Cancer wasn’t just having the rug pulled out from under me—someone had taken the rug and tossed it away! I knew in a stark new way that I would have to die; I’d gotten a reprieve, but I was, like everyone else, mortal.
            To create writing that reaches others, we’re told, something big has to be at stake. The high drama of surgery and treatment had ended; nothing as major was at stake now. Surviving treatment was big. Figuring out how to live now isn’t a pageturner.
            Ending treatment is a kind of grief. I’m on my own again now—not entirely, of course, but to a greater degree than I was during treatment. Flowers, calls, cards, and minestrone soup go to others in active need. Some days I struggle with survivor’s guilt—as of this writing, I’ve not experienced a recurrence of my dangerous cancer. I met women in the chemo room almost four years ago with cancer like mine who are no longer alive. I miss their wit and courage, even though I knew them only in one context, briefly.
            In many ways, I am still me. Still writing, still walking in the woods along the Little Miami River, still loving good food and conversation. In other ways, I feel both loss and lost. I need to know how to walk this Survivors’ Road. For that, for everything, I must look to God.

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