The Day I Could Not Breathe

amy   August 20, 2015   Comments Off on The Day I Could Not Breathe

Some of my fears are rational:

  • Heights–Hoist me up on a ladder and be ready to hold it steady, because I will make it rattle with my shaking legs. As a matter of fact, the only reason I’m 5’2″ is because, in my youth, I was scared to grow taller.
  • Losing my kids in a crowd: Some day, when Baby #4 can walk everywhere, this fear will be amplified. Right now I can still use the “everyone hold on to the stroller” mode of head-counting.
  • House fires: Coming from a multi-generational family of fire fighters, my dad put the fear of fire to good use. It made us clean up our rooms “What if there was a fire? How would the firemen get to you if you have all of this crap of toys all over your floor?” It made us reluctant to burn candles “Are you going to sit there and watch it, and be sure the flame doesn’t move at all?” It made us fans of antiques “All of this new furniture puts a house up in flames in less than 5 minutes. IN LESS THAN 5 MINUTES.” It made us reluctant to cook “Are you sure you turned off the burner? Better check again.” It even made me nervous to use the dryer. I vacuum out that lint screen like a boss.
  • Roller-coasters: When I was in my late teens, I went with my then-boyfriend and his friends to Six Flags Great Adventure. I talked a big talk about being ready to overcome my fears. I also cried waiting in line for 90 minutes to take a 32-second roller coaster ride. I rode on that ridiculous thing, whimpering and with my eyes shut. Much to my date’s dismay, I spent the rest of the day sitting on a park bench, holding everyone else’s stuff and rocking in a fetal position.


Some of my fears, admittedly, are slightly irrational:

  • That some day I will have to cook Thanksgiving dinner for our extended family: This is already a group effort on my husband’s side of the family, and I see the amount of preparation and stress my mother-in-law is under in the weeks leading up to the holiday. It makes me nauseous just thinking about it.
  • Water: I can’t swim, and the thought of submerging my head is appalling. If I have to get into a pool with the kids, so be it, but I must be able to stand with my head out of the water.  When my husband and I were first dating, I put on a brave act and got into a pool with him. After about 5 minutes, he was carrying me like a baby and I was crying hysterically. God help the sorry soul that contemplates spraying me with a garden hose. Hell hath no fury like an anxious wet woman. And, yes, I will make an angry, wet cat face.

  • Stone angel statues: My husband introduced me to Doctor Who, and I binge-watched it while having insomnia during chemotherapy. I would have posted a photo of the Weeping Angel characters that have penetrated my nightmares, but, according to the story line, sharing their images through any type of media brings them into existence. I am not taking any unnecessary chances. You can’t blink when you see one, because they move so fast and attack so quickly that you will be done for. Do. Not. Blink. *


Living with cancer–or living through any stressful, life-altering event–is bound to change a person in pronounced ways. One positive of the experience is perspective. Baby #3 takes swimming lessons, and while he is receiving instruction, I am in the other end of the pool with Baby #4. I’m not backstroking or even putting my face in the water, but I am in up to my shoulders for a half hour. I am playing with my son and doing my damnest to show him an example of having fun while being safe. Pre-cancer, I would not have done this. Now I see the wisdom in pushing myself.

There are moments when rationalization and perspective aren’t easy concepts to grasp.

Baby #2 turned 7 this summer. For his party, we contacted a mobile gaming trailer called Rolling Game Station. In his own words, this was “the best birthday party I ever had. Can we do it again next year?” His brother, Baby #3, cried when the party was over.  He cried off and on for two weeks. He expected the trailer to return on any given day, and has requested that it come back for Christmas.

The best party of his seven years of life!

The best party of his seven years of life!

It was a great party. The kids were entertained for 1.5 hours in the gaming truck, playing Minecraft, Mario Kart, and Super Smash Bros. Then we served them pizza and cake and BAM! party over. Simple, tidy, and fun. Baby #2 was happy, I was happy. Life was good: no stress, no worries, no mess to clean up.

Hours after the festivities were over, my left forearm itched. I scratched at it absentmindedly for an hour or two. Upon inspection, I noticed a rash forming. An hour later, there was a small spot on my torso.  By 7:00, hives were covering most of my body.

Monday morning I awoke itching from head to toe. There wasn’t any spot on my body that wasn’t inflamed. As I began preparing for the day, my breathing was fast and shallow. I begged my husband to keep a wide berth. By this point, I had convinced myself the rash wasn’t hives but some kind of spontaneous leprosy.  On the way to the doctor’s office, breathing was more and more difficult. My fingers swelled up to sausages and turned black. My husband, who occasionally drives 5 miles over the speed limit, ran a red light. He drove me to the Emergency Room’s front door, and my mind was exploding with scattered thoughts: Was my heart giving out because of the radiation exposure? What the hell did I eat to cause hives this bad? Would my sister-in-law find the peanut butter to make the kids’ sandwiches for lunch? How long of a wait would I have to get seen by a doctor? Did I have my wallet? How many days until we left for vacation? Were the stove burners turned off back at the house? 

The ER team immediately went to work to calm me down. The nurse explained that my anxiety was causing physical symptoms. She was reassuring and matter-of-fact and, most importantly, non-judgmental. I took deep breaths. I was in the hospital that birthed my babies, performed my surgeries, provided my cancer treatments. I had trusted this place before for so many important reasons.

I’m okay. I can breathe. I am breathing.

My fists began to uncurl.  As my blood circulated through my hands, my fingers returned to their normal color. After testing and observations, it was determined that something I ingested was the culprit. Did I eat anything new on Saturday? Did the pizza we ordered for the party contain new ingredients? Could it have been that celebratory blueberry wine I had to toast my first blog post?

Our experiences shape and mold us. An unexpected diagnosis, or accident, or life-change can shake us to the core of our beings. It’s foolish to think those experiences leave nothing in their wake. When it comes to my health, I am prone to expect the worst now. My worries and fears can feel paralyzing at times and, some days, it’s difficult to get into the water with the kids.  I push through it, because I won’t let the fear define me. I’ll climb that ladder a little higher each time. I’ll test-run cooking a large family meal. I will attempt not to shudder as I drive by a cemetery and catch a glance of a stone angel statue. Every day, I have a chance to decide who I am and who I want to be. Every moment is worth my best effort; I’ll just keep checking the stove.

*Doctor Who Episodes “Blink”, “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone,” “The Time Complex,” “The Angels Take Manhattan,” and “The Time of the Doctor.”