Checking In

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I had my now annual (down from weekly, monthly, every few months) check-in with my oncologist a few weeks ago. This is an appointment that always makes me nervous.

The visit basically entails getting blood work done and then talking with my oncologist about the lab results and how I’m feeling. He also does a physical exam to make sure there’s nothing weird going on with my chest or lymph nodes.

First, the really good news: I’m fine. My doctor said my labs were perfect, and in his words, I “couldn’t be doing better.”

I don’t know that that’s exactly true.

Returning to the cancer center is always a weird experience for me. I spent so much time there during treatment and in the year after. For a time, it felt comfortable, welcoming. It was one of the few places I felt like I fit in with my bald head or weird chemo curls. I knew how shitty all those people sitting in the chairs in the lobby felt–both physically and emotionally. There was this odd sense of belonging.

Now, that is gone. When I walked in there this week, I felt like an outsider with my long hair and summer-tanned skin. I looked more like a caretaker than a patient, and physically, I felt that way, too. I could certainly still empathize with those struggling through chemo and radiation, but my feelings aren’t so raw and at the surface. And instead of feeling comforted, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I realize this is a good thing. This is me re-entering the regular world, finding some sense of my “normal” life. Moving on. Living.

But at the same time, it troubles me. When you go through something so epically traumatic as a cancer diagnosis and months of intense treatment, it leaves you feeling so off-kilter. I know I’ve talked about this a lot, but that’s because it’s important and ongoing–moving on with the rest of your life is really hard.

Going back to the cancer center is really triggering for me now. I can almost conjure the sick feeling of chemo when I’m there. Seeing the people there for treatment–with their tote bags and pillows–I get antsy. I know what they’re in for. I know what the next days and weeks hold for them.

While I was in treatment, I always thought I’d love to come back and volunteer at the cancer center. So many survivors do, and it’s really amazing to see them there when you’re going through it–they made it, and so can you, is the message they send. But I’m starting to think I will never be able to do that. I can’t imagine being back in that infusion room again–the thought of it makes my palms sweat. As much as I’d love to help others, I don’t think that’s the way for me.

Instead, I’m turning to my writing. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I’ve been writing more about my experience for numerous publications. I’m working on a memoir, too, focusing on how hard it is to get on with your life after going through something like this. Hopefully one day I’ll actually finish it!

Until then, I’ll be here, sharing these thoughts and reminding anyone who is in a similar boat that these feelings are normal, and it’s OK to still struggle. I do, and I want to talk about it so others can feel less alone in this process.

 

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Pins and Needles

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In my quest to quell my anxiety and improve my overall well-being, I’ve been trying a lot of new things.

I’ve been going to therapy (that’s not really new to me), I’ve been meditating, and last week, I tried acupuncture.

I’ve always been curious about the ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into pressure points around the body to treat various ailments. I have a coworker who’s been swearing by her acupuncturist for years, so I decided to give him a try.

Right away, I liked that he works out of a traditional doctor’s office (he rents space there). I’m a little hippy-dippy, but I also believe in the power of Western medicine. Our session began with talking. I told him about all I’d been through in the past year, we talked about my diet and exercise habits, and discussed what I hoped to get out of this treatment.

I told him about my fear and the anxiety it causes. Like my therapist, he said I’m still in fight or flight mode (I am), and I’ll have to work to get out of that and back to feeling more normal mentally and emotionally. I really liked what he had to say and how he approached things–he definitely has a sense of humor about what he does, but he also takes it very seriously and truly wants to help people.

After our chat, we got down to the business of treatment. He showed me the tiny needles–not much thicker than a strand of hair–and explained that I might feel a slight bit of pain when they were inserted. He only used five needles–one on my forehead between my eyes, one on each of my hands just above the bend between my thumb and forefinger, and one on the top of each of my feet. I felt the teensiest sensation when he inserted them–honestly, I can’t even call it pain.

The needles were just the beginning, though. The other part of the treatment was cranial sacral therapy. This basically entailed him holding my head in his hands with his fingers placed around the base of my skull. He told me to just let gravity do its thing and let my head rest in his hands.

For 45 minutes I laid there like that, needles poking out and my head in his hands. As he held my skull, his fingers moved very slightly against pressure points in my head.

At first, I honestly didn’t feel much of anything. I was relaxed, but no more so than during a massage. But after a bit, something strange happened. This is going to sound totally bonkers, but I almost felt like I was floating–I could barely feel the table beneath me. That’s how relaxed I was.

Holy hell, I haven’t been that chill in a loooong time!

At the end of the session, I felt sort of like I’d just awoken from a really good nap–relaxed, refreshed and slightly dazed. It was a good feeling, and I tried to carry it with me throughout the rest of that day.

Did acupuncture totally change my life? No. But did it give me some peace and calm, even for a few minutes? Absolutely.

As I continue my all fronts war on cancer and the fear and anxiety left in its wake, I’m excited to add this new weapon to my arsenal. I know it’s not some magical cure for my woes, but if I can add even a minute of anxiety-free time to my day with it, it’s worth the time and money.

Why am I Still Crying?

 

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I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear
And I’ll be taken over by the fear
-Lily Allen, “The Fear”

Today I had a followup appointment with my surgeon. The meeting went well–he said everything was healing up nicely and he went over my pathology report again, reiterating what great news it contained. All in all, pretty darn good.

So, why did I spend half the drive home crying?

I should be really happy right now. Yes, I’m still in some pretty wicked pain, and my chest is a hot mess, but that will all eventually change. I’m “cancer-free;” I should be ecstatic, right? I certainly shouldn’t be boo-hooing in the car.

And yet, here I am. My emotions are all over the place. I don’t know how I’m supposed to go from being the cancer patient back to a regular person. I’m too afraid of recurrence to let my guard down. And every time I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror, I’m taken aback–the mind’s eye vision of myself doesn’t fit how I actually look with my barely-there growing-in hair, pale skin and flat chest.

And even nuttier, I’m actually kind of sad that my time with my doctors is starting to wind down. I’ve grown kind of attached to these people, having seen them so much the past few months. Not to mention the fact that they literally saved my life.

I’ve heard people say that the treatment of cancer is hard, but figuring out life after treatment can be just as difficult. I always used to think that sounded kind of weird, but now I’m starting to¬†understand what they were saying.

I don’t know how to proceed. I’m not sure how to process all of this.¬†I don’t know how to be me anymore.

There’s a flyer in my oncologist’s office called “Finding Your New Normal.” I guess that’s what I have to do now. I won’t ever be able to go back to the old me.