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Survivor since 2004…

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.  I had a lumpectomy hoping to avoid chemo but there were four compromised lymph nodes so I faced both chemo (first) and then radiation. I continued to work almost obsessively as if I could ignore the cancer if I just kept busy enough.  I thought I was pretty successful – in hind sight that idea is laughable.  I wrote this piece a year later in a “memoir” class.  It is a tiny vignette about my recollection of the chemo haze and the inner turmoil I tried so hard to hide and to deny.

“The real world feels like it is just out of reach.  I know it’s there but I’m not part of it.  I’m standing in the airport and I have my carry-on. I see faces I recognize but I can’t figure out who they are.  I think they must be from another life.  Andy is putting my boarding pass in my pocket.  Now he is asking one of those familiar faces to make sure I get on the plane.  I hear him and I’m upset because I can hear the concern in his voice.  But it is as if he is in another room and I am eavesdropping.  He is standing right next to me.  I cannot reassure him.  I haven’t the energy.  I’m not sure my feet are on the ground.  My body is here but I’m not in it.  I’m hovering over the scene.  I’m going to Houston today.

My body functions are fighting to survive.  The drugs have been building upon each other for four months to reach this level of potency.  This is it, the nadir. While they are doing their job they are messing with my brain and ravaging my once happily functioning body.  I have no ability to act without direction.  My eyes are running constantly because I have no lashes.  My nose is leaking too because my nose hairs are gone.  I notice Andy is still hovering.  He usually hates long good-byes and makes excuses to leave.

I’m on the plane – a nice lady showed me to my seat.  I think she is one of those faces I saw in the airport.  Now what?  Oh yes.  Buckle my seat belt.  Now I am woozy.  I need water.  I can’t get water, the stewardesses are busy.  I must get water.  I don’t know what to do.  The lady sitting by the window thinks I’m crying.  Should I ask for her help?  I can’t.  She thinks me a freak.  God, what can I do?  I want to tear off this turban.  It’s heavy and sweaty.  It gives me a headache.  I want to scream “Help Me!” at the top of my lungs.

Oh shit. Someone has this aisle seat. I was hoping we would only have two of us.  She is crying too. That’s all I need.  I’m not in the mood for some hysterical chickie. Her friend is sitting across the aisle holding a flag.  God, look, where did all these cute young boys come from?  They are filing by our row, one by one. They are all in uniform but they look like they should be in high school.  What is going on?  I don’t understand.  Why am I sitting here? Oh my, can it be?  Are they going off to war? No-o-o-o-o.

The cry baby is trying to get my attention.  She wants to comfort me. Now I look and see the pain in her eyes – real pain – not ethereal. The pain jolts me out of my fog. Incredulously, her husband was killed in Iraq yesterday. Suddenly I am present, under-standing that I am needed.  I can relate and respond for the first time in months.  We nurture each other on the ride south – she, to pick up her husband’s body and bring it home to Colorado; me to get daily radiation for two months to kill this sucker cancer.

Wendy runs the length of the tarmac to surround me with a hug.  I follow her to the luggage carousel like a loyal puppy tags along after his master. I catch a glimpse of my reflection as we pass by the security glass barrier.  I have a huge hump on my back I’ve not noticed before.  Wendy tells me it’s the steroids.  I try to stand up straight but the hump doesn’t disappear.

We are watching the luggage on its circular journey.  I am suddenly disoriented and not sure why we are there. Then my bright purple duffle pops through the portal and I remember.  I point and Wendy grabs my bag.  I grapple at my side to be sure I still have my carry-on.  I feel proud that I was able to remember. I feel safe now.  My sister will take care of me.”

I’m now looking forward to my fifth anniversary cancer free and I can’t wait. I am taking an aromatase inhibitor and struggling with “chemo-brain” symptoms which are not subsiding. My identity has always been so tied to my intellect that I am convinced this is God’s way of saying “gotcha” – to remind me about what really matters and what doesn’t.  My life has been permanently altered by this experience, mostly for the better.  I have been forced to learn to be compassionate with myself and to let a little vulnerability seep in.  I hope I’m a kinder gentler person now.

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