Some breast cancer patients who have had bilateral mastectomies require yearly CT Scans. I didn’t expect to be one of them, but during surgery a cancerous area was discovered on my chest wall. That cancer was not visible during the diagnostic ultrasound that confirmed two areas of concern. That cancer was not biopsed with the others while I was engorged with breast milk. That cancer was also not visible during the routine mammograms and MRI medical insurance made mandatory before surgery could take place. However, that cancer did seal my fate as a radiation patient because, without it, chemotherapy would have been my only standing appointment at the cancer center.
That small area of cancer on the chest wall has caused me a lot of problems. Radiation led to issues with breast reconstruction, trouble breathing, and a need for physical therapy. Twelve sessions of Acupuncture were built into my hectic schedule for pain management. Furthermore, that cancer extended my treatment time, setting back my recovery, and altered my post-breast cancer body dramatically. Now, on the other side of the experience, I should be grateful it is over.
But will it ever really be behind me? Somewhere in cancer survivors’ minds, every skin irregularity, every sunburn, every unusual ache or pain, every exposure to something that could increase our cancer risk is calculated, noted, and stored for the future. Then, one morning, we wake up expecting to have a perfectly normal day, and find ourselves recalling all of that stored data:
- An outdoor lunch date with friends? Is the seating shaded enough, because I have that patch of uneven color on my arm that broke out last week. Like a vampire of lore, I can’t sit in direct sunlight without dire consequences.
- I can’t use that entrance to the grocery store. There’s a pocket of lingering second-hand smoke right there I’d have to walk through, and my chest has been sore already for days! What’s already lurking down there in my airway?
- Stripping down to get into the shower, I examine my reconstructed breasts. “Honey, can you come in here? No, sorry, not for what you’re hoping for. Do you see how this millimeter of skin looks dimpled now? It wasn’t like that six months ago.”
When a cancer survivor first heard the “You have cancer” sentence, all of the what-ifs became definitely-sures. There is no going back from that.
My first CT Scan was last week. I would like to say that, with all I have been through in recent years, going in for the test was easy and stress-free. Saying that would be a direct lie, though, because I get anxious before diagnostic testing now as if my fate is already sealed and disastrous. I purposefully do not think about the test itself until the day comes. Otherwise, dread fills my time, I’m feeling sorry for myself while writing goodbye letters to my family, and reminding my husband how to divvy up my possessions when I’m gone. I am expecting the worst.
My veins decided to hide and starting the IV in the one arm I’m permitted to use became a challenge. I was sent from the health campus to the hospital so that an ultrasound machine could be utilized. Eventually, after much poking, prodding, and, by all involved, wincing, I was prepped and taken in for the test.
“This will be over quickly,” the technician informed me. “You may have a metallic taste in the back of your mouth, and you are going to feel like you are urinating. Don’t worry, that sensation passes too and you won’t wet yourself.”
How does one respond to that? It’s like college all over again.
I don’t yet know what is in the CT Scan report. The longer it takes for the doctor’s office to call with the results, the more relief I feel. The more relief I feel, the more guilt washes over me. I have friends who are dealing with reoccurring and new cancers, and I have friends who didn’t survive cancer. For every reminder that I’m alive, there is something that pushes me to think it isn’t fair that I am. Why do I get to rebuild my life after cancer when so many others do not? I didn’t beat cancer because, if I did, no one else would be suffering from it now. To hear that “You have cancer” sentence another time would almost–almost–be a relief, because I could take up arms again with those in the fight. I would know my place in the battle, and the power of dread would have no sway over me.
That guilt does serve a constructive purpose. It gives me an empathetic view, and it inspires me to make good use of my time for others. I have no interest in hearing a litany of all that is wrong with our world. I want to surround myself with people that are striving to make it better, who have a daily positive impact on those around them. I want to be counted on as a reliable source of compassion, understanding, encouragement, and work ethic for good.
The guilt motivates me. It reminds me not to waste time, and it opens my eyes to the endless opportunities to extend goodwill to everyone I come in contact with. I seek out occasions to connect with others in meaningful ways, and every personal association established is like a soothing balm on my soul.
I wonder how long it will be before the burden lightens. Survivors can’t go back to who they were before, but maybe we don’t need to. Maybe the way forward is the only way to go.