“You’re so brave!”
“I don’t think I could ever be as brave as you are if I was dealing with cancer…”
“You’re the bravest person I know.”
“I know that I would fall apart if I was you. How do you do it?”
I’ve heard variations on this theme ever since I was diagnosed with cancer — from friends, acquaintances, and my husband. My only response was to shrug and reply with something along the lines of, “I just do what has to be done. Anyone else would probably do the same…” and mostly I think that’s true.
No one knows how they’re going to react if they’re hit with something difficult and life-changing like cancer. Early last year I remember specifically being struck, out of the blue, with a huge panic attack about exactly that. It was spring, I was spending parental leave with Lyra and Pandra, and one day I had the most unsettling of intrusive thoughts: “What if I got cancer right now?”
It was terrifying. I was devastated by the idea that I might not see my girls grow up. I was shaken by a visceral fear of going through chemotherapy, of not knowing what would happen. And this all happened six months before I was even diagnosed. I had no symptoms. There was no reason for me to think about cancer at all. The feeling stuck with me for at least a week. And I was absolutely certain that if it happened to me I’d be a complete mess for that week.
Adam has been sick for the last month or so. He’s had a lot of abdominal pain, and spent five or six hours in Emergency care at our local hospital ruling out worst-case-scenarios like appendicitis or unknown tumors. Upon returning home, he looked at me — just going through life and dealing with the cancer thing and the chemo thing and the parenting thing — and somehow managing to not have a breakdown since this all started in September. And he had a bit of a breakdown, because being sick and in pain and frustrated about not knowing what’s wrong with you… well, it’s really hard to handle.
When Adam asked me how I do it, how I stay so calm and have held myself together throughout this experience, I paused and thought longer about the question, rather than giving my usual response of shrugging it off. I forced myself to think longer and harder about the answer, because when your husband is the one asking you, maybe there’s more to it than just ‘you do what you have to do.’
Just like Girl Guides or The Lion King: Be Prepared
So here’s my secret. My mind is always running through worst-case scenarios. I mean it — always. When I walk down the street I imagine cars careening off the road and up onto the sidewalk towards me. And I plan out what I would do.
When I’m driving I constantly check everything around me and do my best to stay aware of the cars I’m sharing the road with, so I can figure out what to do should one of them intrude on my space. And I consider all options for getting from where I am to where I need to be, and plan not only an initial best route to my destination, but a series of alternate routes if the traffic gets bad, or if there’s unexpected construction, or if I just decide part-way through the trip that it’ll be more efficient to take a different road.
I imagine the commuter train I’m on derailing and my mind rushes through options to survive with as little damage to myself as possible.
I entertain terrible, heartbreaking thoughts of someone trying to grab my five-year-old daughter, or my toddler running off towards a busy road, or innumerable other situations that end in disaster, and I do everything I can think of to keep them from happening.
This is not something I do occasionally. This is my mind, spinning and planning and imagining the. Worst. Possible. Thing. All the time. One might think that it would make me stressed and on edge all the time, this constant weighing of options and subconsciously thinking about what can go wrong, but it doesn’t. Instead, it keeps me calm. Exploring all the possibilities — even if they’re terrible — and making imaginary plans to deal with them keeps me grounded.
So if I can imagine the worst possible thing and decide how to deal with it, anything less is manageable. And if it’s all manageable, if there’s a plan in my head for the worst, then there’s nothing to be afraid of… no reason to panic.
And as for the cancer, well, I took the weapons that science has given us into battle against it. And if the first treatment plan didn’t work, then there are other treatments. One step at a time, with one solution to the problem at hand, and if that doesn’t work move on to the next solution until it does.
Worrying about the possibilities without planning how to deal with them confuses me. It’s not that I don’t worry — I do. I worry, and then I follow through on the scenario in my head, and I discover the best and worst outcomes. I decide how I’ll react to the worst thing. Once I’ve got that figured out, I let the worry and fear go, and keep moving forward.
If that road is closed, or if the traffic gets bad, or if there are too many school zones making me run late, then I reassess my chosen route and find another way. Worry and panic don’t come into play anymore, because I’ve already decided what the worst is and how I’d deal with it.
I still don’t think I’m stronger than anyone else. I’m just painfully, brutally logical. And my mind is always, always spinning.
After chemo: two and a half weeks
This is the first time since October that I haven’t had to go in for a chemotherapy treatment on the two-week mark. I had a sinus infection for a few weeks, but with the help of antibiotics it’s gone now. My taste buds are returning. The chemo brain is receding some, so the cloudiness I’ve been thinking through is finally starting to clear. My hair, which never stopped growing, but did thin out quite a lot, is growing again. I had a labyrinth shaved into it last week to celebrate not having to do chemo anymore, but it’s already growing in… I haven’t decided what to do next with my hair.
I’ve been fatigued, but that’s to be expected. I still have more energy than I did during chemo, so I’ve been able to take on more parenting and cleaning and normal, everyday human responsibilities than I have in a long time. But I’m not at 100% yet. The end of chemo has felt like a non-event. It has happened, and life goes on.