Hopefully devoted to us all

Like many people, I was saddened to learn that Olivia Newton-John is again battling cancer.  To me, she is not just a wonderful entertainer – she is the first celebrity that I remember openly discussing her battle with breast cancer in 1992.  She advocated for more awareness and better treatments, and showed us that you can have a fulfilling life after breast cancer treatment  – even when you are diagnosed in your mid-40’s.

 

Which is why I think this has hit a lot of my pink sisters especially hard.  I have heard a lot of despair in my support group in the last few days.  After all, Olivia is the one who did it.  She stared breast cancer in the face and said “Oh, hell no!”  It is a reminder to us that any of us can have a recurrence.   Any of us can have a metastasis (when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body).  This is the fear that all cancer survivors, no matter what the type, live with every day.  We all fear the moment that we will once again hear those words, “You have cancer.”

 

But this is not my take away from Olivia’s fight.  When I read about her new challenges Tuesday, the words that jumped off the screen at me were “25 years”.

 

Wow.  Twenty-five years of being NED (no evidence of disease).

 

(On a side rant, I hate the term “remission”.  It implies to me that the cancer is sitting there dormant, waiting to strike again.  NED tells me we eliminated, no, exterminated all the cancer.  Sure, I may produce more at some point, but for now, I have won).

 

But I digress.

 

It is incredible to me that Olivia has been NED for 25 years.  My doctors keep scaring me with talk of five year recurrence rates.  There are days that I can’t imagine more than that.  Twenty-five years feels like a lifetime that I may barely dream about today.  And she did it!  After being treated with 1992 technology,  Olivia has not just survived, she has thrived.   And she shows no sign of stopping now.

 

From her press release:

“In addition to natural wellness therapies, Olivia will complete a short course of photon radiation therapy and is confident she will be back later in the year, better than ever, to celebrate her shows.”

 

I refuse to ever lose hope.  I refuse to think of myself in terms of statistics.  Cancer may win in the end, but it’s going to drag me out kicking, screaming, and leaving nail marks in the door jam.   I have hope for me, for all my pink sisters, and for Olivia.  I hope her treatment is successful.  I hope she tours again and embraces life.  No matter what the future holds, I know one thing.  She has already shown us there is life after cancer.  And I am devoted to finding that for myself.

Bucking the norm

In the hours after getting the results of my biopsy,  I remember having the sense that I was suddenly a mutant.  I was no longer normal.  I was suddenly bombarded with big words I did not understand, and scary sounding treatments that I dreaded.  And I wanted to go back to my ignorant, normal bliss of being healthy.

 

Over the next few months, I started coming to grips with the fact that I was on a year-long journey that had more downs than ups.  And what helped me through, what sometimes drove me to just survive this hour,  was the expectation that after it was all said and done, that I would get back to a normal life.  I would go to work, putter in my yard, enjoy my hobbies, and travel the world again.  On my worst night, when I was bawling my eyes out because I couldn’t face the prospect of getting out of bed the next morning for chemo #12, I gritted my teeth, told myself normal was just around the corner, and took care of business.

 

Which is why it was so frustrating when normal never materialized.   As I finished chemo and navigated radiation, I started getting strength back.  I began to exercise again.  I grew hair.  I went on a trip to celebrate life.  But so many additional items were packed in my suitcase.  The neuropathy in my feet, the anxiety, the chemo brain, the aching in my bones.  I started looking for a new job and had such bad panic attacks that I delayed any searching for a few months.  I developed lymphedema  (swelling in my arm from lymph node removal).  Life was still surreal six months after treatment ended.  And I kept asking once again, where is my normal?

 

As I come up to the one year anniversary of my treatment conclusion, there are still ups and downs.  I have developed nerve pain my arm, and the aches in my bones keep getting worse.  I am plagued by continuing fatigue, and periods of anxiety I don’t ever wish on anyone else.   But I found a temp job that I am loving, and I am slowly getting back to doing all the things I have missed at home.  And I have come to the realization that there is no normal.  Life is constantly changing,  and what is normal one minute, is crazy the next.  I am learning to embrace it.  Because this is who I am, and I want to live for now.  Not for one day when I am “normal.”

Wait, what?

Patience.

HUH?  Patience is not something I naturally have in abundance. Ask anyone who has known me for more than five minutes.   But in this day and age, who does have patience?  We are a generation of convenience.   Our food is fast, our information is free,  and our streaming is instant.  We binge watch our favorite shows because we can’t stand to wait a week in between episodes.  Instant gratification has become our norm.

And then I got cancer.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you want answers and treatment instantly.   Every moment is an eternity knowing that the cancer is there inside of you, growing with gleeful abandon (sort of like a malignant Johnny Appleseed).   But then you have to wait.  You wait for available appointments with the doctors who will become your team (probably more doctors than you have ever seen in your life to date).  You sit in waiting rooms, exam rooms, and treatment rooms, waiting for it to be your turn.  You wait hours, days, and weeks for results from blood tests and scans.  You wait for side effects to wane, and for medications to kick in.  Wait – it’s literally and figuratively a four-letter word.

And there is typically nothing you can do about it.  Yes, you can make calls and firmly nag, which sometimes helps, but in the end, our healthcare system is a big, hairy monster who does what it wants.  Which leaves you with two options:  lose your mind, or learn patience.

For me, I usually take my tablet or a book with me to doctor’s appointments and procedures in anticipation of the inevitable waits.  I look forward to catching up on HGTV in the waiting room while waiting for appointments  (What renovation miracle will Chip and Joanna perform this week???).  While waiting for results,  I focus on my life.  I can’t change what might happen in a few days, but I can live today like it counts.  Because it does.

Leo Tolstoy said, “The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”   All due respect to Leo, but he is missing one.  Along with time and patience, there is a third element of strength – the beautiful pink warriors that I am proud to call my sisters.  Surviving cancer is all about taking it one step at a time,  and patiently completing each obstacle in your journey.  And knowing that you will always be waiting – for follow-up tests and visits, as well as the possible recurrence.   You never escape from it.

So if you are newly diagnosed and feel like everything is happening in slow motion (or not at all), know that patience will come your way.  And you will emerge with a new outlook, a renewed sense of yourself, and, quite possibly, the ability and vision to turn a run-down mid-century ranch “Fixer upper” into a modern home.