In my dream last night I was playing in the sea. Even though it looked like New Zealand, the water was warm (clearly proving it was a dream), and while the shoreline was jagged rocks, under my toes the sand was soft. Suddenly I noticed the sharp sucking out of water that we’re taught signals a coming tsunami. Then the wave came. I saw it in the distance, not a Japanese monster but the sort of very big wave that terrified and thrilled me as a kid at Jones Beach in Long Island. I swam towards the wave to prepare to jump over or under it. But, as was true in many Long Island summers, my timing was off, and the wave broke over my head, pushing me under and carrying me at speed towards the rocky shore.
In the next scene in my dream I was dressed again, talking to the kids in the kitchen. All safe. But when Naomi pointed to my legs, I looked down and saw they were bleeding badly, the kitchen floor covered with bloody footprints. I was safe, but pretty beaten up. In my dream I needed to sit down and take in the shock of it.
I woke just stunned at how similar a parallel that was to my own experience of this cancer recurrence. Just splashing around in the warm waters of my life, finally putting down my worries about the cancer coming back and WHAM, there it is. And for a few moments (well, weeks, in the cancer case) it looks like it could kill me. And it doesn’t. But wow am I battered afterwards.
This week has been my transition week. I am moving from my surgical oncologist (Stan) to my medicating oncologist (Dr. Graham) and eventually on to my radiating oncologist (Dr. TBD). The results from my surgery were still not back, but I’m moving on to the next step.
As I walked through the corridors of the hospital to find my appointment, I crossed through a portal (well, a swinging hospital door) and into the cancer world. All around me, on every available chair, were people getting chemotherapy. Mostly old and frail, hooked up to machines that whirr and drip, with the warming wheat bag over the IV, the Styrofoam cup of tea in their other hand. I remember me with that wheat bag and whirring drip, my bald head warm in my beanie, Naomi in her school uniform eating lunch on my hospital bed. I was flushed and shaking by the time I sat in Dr. Graham’s office.
His news was exactly what I expected. Switch from my premenopausal Tamoxifen (which didn’t keep the cancer away) to the post menopausal Aromatase Inhibitors (which might be more effective? They have no idea). Only to do that, I also have to switch to being post-menopausal. You get there by the regular way by time, or you hurry it along by either removing your ovaries (another surgery!) or having a capsule injected into your stomach once a month (“I won’t lie to you—it’s a big needle,” Dr. Graham said).
So naturally, I had hoped my body had already done that for me. But my calls from oncologists are rarely cheerful. Yesterday morning Dr. G called back to say alas, no, while I might experience myself as post menopausal, my ovaries were still plugging away. I thought of all the women crushed by going into menopause early and having their hopes of a baby dashed—and here I am wishing that the chemo and drugs would have shut them off, and finding myself miserable that they’re still on!
So now I have a new set of greys: Will I choose surgery—another general, another 90 minutes on the table—or a monthly belly shot? Do I even need to change medicines? How do I make all of these decisions? Will the delightful choices never end?!
I was down about that all day yesterday. I so wanted something to be straightforward.
And then, after I was in bed, came this text from Stan:
Hi Jen, the results have come through- it’s all clear. No disease at all 🙂 yay!!
I will update the radiotherapy referral tomorrow. Well done on urging us to take the less trodden path.
Wow! At least good news from Stan! What a better text than “Call me.”
Relief rushed over me. Aidan and I did a joy dance in my bedroom (and whatever you’re imagining, it is much, much sillier than that).
As I fell asleep, still smiling, I thought about what it would have been like to have gotten that news after having taken off my breast as they first recommended. I imagined the call from Stan that said, “Congratulations, the breast we took off was totally cancer free!” I don’t think Aidan and I would have been doing our silly joy dance over that.
Like the tsunami in my dream, I have escaped all the very worst consequences of this cancer. I am grateful about that every day. Every moment of every day. And I am bruised, and the washing machine of the waves isn’t over.
I want to celebrate the excellent news that the last surgery was simply an over precaution, that there were no demons hiding over on that half of my breast. I want to celebrate that I still have that breast and didn’t have the major surgery for nothing. And I want to also be with my grief that this road is not over, that there might be MORE surgery ahead of me, and that there are surely more difficult choices ahead.
My belief in what doctors know and can do has been shaken in many ways. And it has been deepened in many ways as I have had careful and thoughtful doctors make good decisions with me—once I asked enough questions. I have felt like a person and not a patient. But I’m still on cancer island, and now with a new set of doctors and a new set of choices. Now I have to figure out the questions to ask to get me through this next patch.
And even then, once I’m off cancer island and back into the ocean, I have to know that no matter how warm the sea is, and how soft the sand, our human lives are fragile always, and there are unexpected waves that might come at any moment and grind us into the rocks. I have to live that reality in a way that celebrates it even as it admits to the brevity of our celebration. (As though the earthquake and Trump didn’t underscore that!) Each moment is a miracle. Making as big a difference as I can while I get to live on top of the planet is my hope. Laughing as much as possible. Loving as much as possible. And celebrating each dawn.
The picture today is a sunny afternoon in stormy Wellington. Dawn now comes before 6am, so I am less likely to see it. But it turns out every hour is beautiful.