Some days, I feel optimistic, defiant, and confident that I will survive the cervical cancer that, as it turns out, has also been hanging out in my liver all along.
Saturday was not one of those days.
When I was first diagnosed 9 months ago, I had no fear and few doubts . I was nervous about the side effects of treatment, and sad about the losses they implied, but I wasn’t afraid. I knew this would just be a temporary state of being en route to wellness and a return to normal (or at least a return to some sort of new equilibrium).
People were constantly telling me how inspired they were by my attitude but frankly, the admiration made me a little uncomfortable. My situation was life altering in many ways, certainly, but it wasn’t (I believed) life threatening and, except for the option of fertility, it wasn’t even permanent. Be inspired by people who remain positive when faced with permanent or life threatening changes, I thought. I’m only staying positive because I haven’t really got much to worry about anyway...
Well, I have rather a lot more to worry about now, and I’m not sure I’m entirely successful at being the positive person people have come to expect. The game changes when the cancer moves. When people start using words like “metastatic”, “advanced”, “inoperable”, “late-stage”, “palliative”... When you learn that tumor mutations can only be identified about half the time, and only another half of those have targeted therapies, which will only increase your likelihood of benefit from 5% to a “whopping” 30%... When they tell you that your cancer will likely never really go away, and try to focus you on the more immediate goal of shrinking it... When you happen to speak science, so you’ve read the literature, and you know that you’ll get checked in the “win” column simply by living an extra 3 months on the trial drug... When two more women in your support group died from this today, and another dozen since you started fighting... When you haven’t eaten well, slept well, or pooped in 3 days and your bones ache from chemo... You shift mentally from just getting through the inconvenience of treatment, to buckling down to survive, because if it doesn’t work, there might not be anything left to try. You start to wonder if maybe you shouldn’t put an offer on the house after all because you might not be around to live in it, you worry about your little black cloud cat who won’t let anyone pet him but you, and it becomes a heck of a lot harder to keep calm and carry on.
I have debates with myself daily about carrying on with normal things like going to work and cleaning the house. Not because I plan to give up and die, but because there are so many things I’d rather be doing: spending time with family, visiting Scotland, drinking wine. But if I quit my regular life to spend time on my bucket list, am I enjoying life, or have I indirectly admitted defeat?
I’m not inspiring. I’m just terrified, and too proud to show it....
That said, you needn’t feel bad every time you talk to me about some aspect of life, yours or mine, that is not cancer related. Just because you didn’t feel terrified at any point today doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems. Having cancer didn’t make me suddenly immune to “ordinary” problems. I still get unreasonably angry at old people in parking lots and irritable with poor customer service. Problems are relative in the life experience, and I am not judging yours.
People apologize to me frequently for complaining about “small problems.” This isn’t necessary if you follow this general rule: if it’s something in your control that you can solve or could have prevented, I don’t want to hear about it, but otherwise, I’m still your friend and I still care. In other words, I still want to hear about your day, but save your hangover stories for someone who has a liver than can filter alcohol, if it’s all the same to you :P