Survivor’s Guilt

nature-sunset-flowers-silhouette

This morning I had my survivorship appointment at the cancer center. This is a next step in my cancer journey–addressing what I need physically and mentally after treatment.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is most overlooked/not talked about when it comes to cancer is what happens to a person after they complete treatment. When you’re in the throes of the battle, as strange as it sounds, things are almost easier in a way. You have a focus, you have a plan, and you’re really sort of forced to take things one day at a time–handling that day’s treatment, side effects, etc. There’s a routine of appointments, blood draws, check in, check out.

But then everything sort of stops. Appointments taper from weekly to monthly to every couple of months. Your arm stops feeling like a pin cushion (that I don’t mind so much). Your hair grows back (that I definitely don’t mind). Suddenly the routine changes, and you’re supposed to go back to your normal schedule.

Except, nothing feels normal anymore. Even as I go to work, take care of my son, carry on with my regular activities, things are no longer the same. There’s a new sense of fear, anxiety and even guilt.

I’m feeling the latter more acutely this week. On Sunday, Nina Riggs died of metastatic breast cancer. She was only 39. I’ve been following Nina’s story since last fall when her incredible essay about living with terminal cancer ran in The New York Times‘ Modern Love column. Nina’s story resonated with me in so many ways–as a breast cancer patient, as a mother of a young boy, as a wife, as a woman who lost her mother too soon. We had a lot of things in common–we even lived in the same city and had some mutual friends of friends. I wrote about Nina’s essay in this blog, and she was even kind enough to comment and send good wishes my way.

I’ve cried so much this past week for Nina and her family, her two boys in particular. Though I didn’t really know her, I got to know her through her writing and I could empathize with many of the things she experienced during her fight with cancer. I know how hard it was for her as a mom to know she’d have to leave those boys. My heart aches for her in that regard, and for them as ¬†children who lost their mother too soon.

Even more bittersweet is the fact that Nina has a memoir called The Bright Hour coming out in June, chronicling her experience living with metastatic breast cancer. She wasn’t able to live to see its official release. But I hope it will allow more people to not only get to know her great talent, but also shine a light on a type of cancer that is generally kept in the shadows. Nobody wants to talk about metastatic breast cancer because it’s usually¬†not a happy story to tell. But the fact is there are thousands of women and men who face and live with this diagnosis every year. And their stories are important, and I’m glad at least one of them is going to be told in such a public way.

As I wrapped up my appointment this morning, the NP I met with gave me a hug and congratulated me on reaching this point. I know I should be feeling celebratory–and I do in a way–but it’s hard to totally let my guard down and enjoy this moment. It’s a process, and I have a lot of work to go, and I plan on seeking some help to get there. In the meantime, I’m just focusing on feeling grateful. I know how fortunate I am to be where I am, and that’s enough to get me through today.

 

Advertisements

Hitting Close to Home

1361222

The Modern Love column is one of my favorite features in The New York Times. For the unfamiliar, it’s a weekly essay series that explores the topic of love in all its various forms. It’s often heartbreaking, revelatory and even sometimes funny.

Last week’s essay, though, struck me deeper than any has in the past. The writer is fighting metastatic breast cancer that recurred in her spine, the tumor actually breaking one of her vertebrae.

Not only is she fighting cancer, but she’s also my age. And she lives in my city. She’s the mom of two little boys, and she worked as a writer and editor. The parallels between our lives were striking. Except, for one–I am lucky enough to have a good prognosis (at this time, at least), while hers is far more grim.

I have cried so much for this woman I don’t even know. I’ve cried for her husband. I’ve cried for her babies. I’ve wondered if our paths have crossed at the cancer center. I’ve wondered if we have any mutual friends. I’ve wondered if there’s any way I could connect to her, to tell her I’m so sorry, to give her a hug, to ask if she needs anything.

There’s one paragraph of this beautifully-written story that I keep coming back to. In talking about her sons, the author says this:

Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.

The tears are welling in my eyes right now reading this. She absolutely captured the feelings that a mother has when facing the specter of death. I know exactly how she feels. I can handle anything else about my diagnosis and all the scary possibilities that come with it, but the possibility of not being there for my child is the one thing I cannot bear.

So, I cry again for her, and for her boys. And I hope that somehow she can feel my love and empathy floating across our city to her.