Down the Rabbit Hole

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My back hurts.

It’s a pretty minor pain, to be honest. I’ve had issues with my back much of my adult life (another hereditary thing, I’m certain, since my mother and sister both suffered/suffer back issues), and I’ve had backaches much worse than this. Plus, I’m coming off several major surgeries to my torso, I’m on Tamoxifen, I’m going through menopause, and I lift a 30-pound toddler on a daily basis. Of course my back hurts.

But that rational explanation can’t quite quell my fear. Even the smallest twinge of pain conjures that insidious little voice in my head, whispering, “maybe it’s cancer.”

On a good day, I tell that little voice to fuck off, pop an ibuprofen and keep it moving.

But on bad days, I turn to the place I should probably avoid most–the internet.

It all starts with Dr. Google. After I’ve Googled symptoms, I’m usually still unsatisfied. That’s when I go to a place I definitely should avoid.

The community message boards on breastcancer.org are actually a really great resource. Women and men at all stages of the game can talk to each other, share stories, ask questions, offer support–it’s truly a fabulous space.

It’s also a dangerous place for a person like me. I usually start by scrolling through the topics, but when I can’t find threads addressing my particular issue, I do more targeted searches. These searches bring up threads that are years old, full of people experiencing symptoms and fear similar to my own.

As I scroll through these threads, I can’t help but notice something that makes my heart sink. Members of the message board all add a signature to their posts that lists their diagnosis(es), treatments, etc. Most of them started out with early-stage cancer. There are folks whose cancers are hormone-receptive (like me), folks with no lymph node involvement (same), folks who seemingly should’ve been done with this mess after the first go-round. Their stat lists also include things like “Stage IV,” “bone mets,” “lung mets,” “liver mets,” “brain mets.” (Mets is shorthand for metastasis.)

When you see words like that on a post that’s several years old, you can pretty much draw some solid conclusions as to what has happened to those people in the interim.

In Nina Riggs’ brilliant memoir The Bright Hour, she talks about this online medical obsessing in the essay perfectly titled: “www.heyninariggseverythingisgoingtobeok.com”:

A couple years back, when a therapist helped me realize through a series of exercises that the only thing that would satisfy me on the internet was a website that explicitly said: “Freddy and Benny are going to be just fine. So are you and John.” I laughed out loud at myself. But it didn’t really stop me from seeing disaster at every corner, or checking from time to time to make sure the magical website did not in fact exist.

Yep, that’s what I need. I’m looking for some validation that what I’m feeling is no big deal. A little reassurance that it’s nothing, and I should stop freaking out all the time. I know this is nuts. I know there is nothing on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter), that is going to give me this reassurance. And even if it did, would I believe it?

The thing is, coping with all of this calls for a healthy dose of faith. I certainly have a strong faith, and while turning my fate over to God and my oncologists is freeing in a way, it’s also terrifying. Just like riding on a plane, I no longer have control, and I think that’s what scares me most.

 

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On Pause

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So, since my preventative oophorectomy back in May, I’ve been in full-on menopause. This is a super-fun condition to be in during August in the South.

I’ve actually been in a menopausal state for more than a year now, since chemo sent me into a chemically-induced menopause last year. But with that, I didn’t really get the full symptoms that I’m experiencing now–hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain.

Physical symptoms aside, being menopausal at 38 is a peculiar thing. While the rest of my peer group is still far from this stage of life (some are even still having children), I’m swapping complaints and cooling strategies with women 15 years my senior.

It’s sort of like having breast cancer (or cancer in general) at a young age. It feels very lonely because most of your friends have no idea what it’s like or what you’re going through. And if they can relate, it’s likely because one of their parents has dealt with the disease.

Looking around the cancer center, I’m usually one of the youngest people in the waiting room. And a lot of the older patients look at me either with bewilderment or pity. I often see eyes quickly dart from my face to my wrist–seeing my patient bracelet confirming, yes, I have cancer, too.

I think this is one of the hardest things that no one talks about when it comes to being a young survivor–the sense of loneliness and feeling sort of out of place in your own life. As much as my friends and loved ones are here for me, they really don’t know how this all feels, physically or emotionally. I’m still me, but I’m very different now and my view of the world has changed dramatically.

I think that’s why so many of us manage to find each other online, and why groups like the Young Survival Coalition are so important. Sometimes it’s just nice to commiserate with someone who completely understands. I have found some of that in this last year, but I’m still looking for my “tribe,” as the kids say these days.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here sweating it out, anxiously awaiting fall.

Deja Vu

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The other day, I read an article about a new app produced by the Duke University Cancer Center. The app is for cancer survivors who are having a hard time coping post-treatment. It offers meditation exercises, stress relief techniques and other resources for those who are struggling mentally with the debris of post-cancer life.

Of course, I downloaded it immediately. Upon opening it, I discovered the app is part of a study the school is conducting to help provide better support resources for cancer patients.

As I scrolled through the app answering questions for the study, one of the queries really struck me: Do you find yourself reliving or going back to your treatment?

Today I had surgery again. It was a small revision procedure to fix a wonky place in my reconstruction (yeah, let me dispel any notions that reconstruction is anything akin to having a boob job).

It was my fourth surgery in a year, so it all felt very familiar–the litany of pre-op questions, the antibacterial wipe scrub-down, climbing onto the table in the freezing cold operating room with the blindingly-bright lights in my eyes. Even one of the nurses remembered me from my previous visits.

Oddly enough, today also is the one-year anniversary of my first chemo treatment. The routine of having surgery today conjured up many of the feelings I had that day a year ago. Nervousness over the procedure. Anxiety about how I’d feel after. Squeamish over the needles and blood and pain. Just like this day last year, I’m curled up under a blanket, taking meds, trying to feel better.

And here’s where that question from the app really resonates: Do you find yourself reliving or going back to your treatment?

Trying to eat today has been difficult. Not because of my surgery, but because I keep thinking about how I felt that day after chemo. Just thinking about it almost makes me nauseous. Even this past week as I took my usual walks around the neighborhood, the uneasy feeling in my stomach would return as I remembered taking walks after chemo, trying to power through the side effects of both the chemo and the steroids I took after, in an attempt to take advantage of the benefits of fresh air and exercise.

Everything seems to remind me of that time. The stifling August heat, the way the light looks in the afternoon, the scent of soap I used at the time.

Part of the Duke app study is an attempt to identify the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in cancer survivors. This is something a lot of people don’t talk about or understand. The wreckage after cancer treatment.

Survivors are celebrated, congratulated. “You did it!” “You beat it!” “You can get back to normal now!” While everyone around you smiles and breathes a sigh of relief, you’re still a mess. Afraid of recurrence/metastasis. Dealing with the lingering effects of chemo and surgery (effects that can last for years). Coming to terms with a new, often disfigured body. Being haunted by memories and dreams of the trauma you’ve endured.

I really hope my responses to the study can help Duke gain more insight into the issues that cancer survivors face. Life after cancer is good–truly a gift. But it’s also hard. And if we can figure out new ways to help patients cope, that’s a very good thing.