Now that chemotherapy is finally over I’m reflecting on how fortunate I am to live in a country with a comprehensive health care system. Since July I’ve received thousands of dollars worth of world class care and pharmaceuticals and the personal cost has been under $1,000. Surgery is still to come, and there will be some expenses there, and then radiation could cost anything up to $2,500 but I’m also being treated as a private patient. I could have been treated for free if I’d chosen to do so.
It’s been a hectic week with my 52nd birthday, Christmas the next day, and then a party on the 27th to thank my unofficial support team of friends and family that have stepped up while I was having chemo. In my mind I differentiate between ‘gratitude’ and ‘thankfulness’. Gratitude for me is a process of reflection whereas thankfulness involves actively expressing my appreciation to other people. Both are important. We called the party “Thanks for the Mammaries” and my daughter organised this hilarious cake.
Yes, it was just a bit creepy cutting into it and I was spontaneously driven to slice out the corresponding tumour site and hurl it into the garden, much to everyone’s amusement. As I type this there’s the remains of the cake, a now sad and partially eaten breast, sitting under glad wrap on the kitchen bench. Hmm. Better finish that off today.
I’ve got a three week gap between my last chemotherapy session and the surgery to remove the tissue from my breast where the tumours used to be. I say this hopefully. While my oncologist is confident of a full pathological response, we won’t really know until the post-surgical pathology how successful we’ve been. The challenge now is to stay happy and well and not to start digging a mental hole for myself. The shovel for this hole sounds like this:
“I am not getting any chemotherapy drugs and if there are still cancer cells left in my body then they are going to start replicating between now and surgery.”
And like this:
“What if there are still cancer cells and in the next three weeks the cancer metastasises and I end up with tumours in my bones, or my brain or some other part of my body?”
And like this:
I am responding to these unpleasant thoughts by reminding myself that I had a very early, very good response to chemotherapy. I’m also remembering that it’s only three weeks and while that’s the doubling rate for the original tumours it’s reasonable to assume that any residual cancer cells aren’t going to have the time to become substantial, and hopefully there are NO residual cancer cells anyway and wouldn’t that be great and hold on to that thought…………
I’m also chanting my favourite dealing-with-cancer mantra: I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it.
Realistically, I have no choice. I can’t go straight from chemotherapy to surgery because I need the delay for my immune system to bounce back. And boy is it bouncing! My hair seems to be trying to set some kind of record for growth. It’s recently occurred to me that perhaps the reason chemotherapy patients spend so much time obsessing about hair is that it’s a very good way to stay distracted from many of the far more frightening things we could be thinking about. So I massage my head, check the length of my fine, white hair, gaze at my strange, male-pattern baldness and smile at the first signs of regrowth and when I’m bored, I check my eyebrows and eyelashes. Last night I tried to clean off some eyeliner only to discover I was rubbing at five or six genuine, black eyelashes. I suspect only people that have lost all their hair can really appreciate how exciting a single eyelash can be.
I had an interesting conversation with one of the breast care nurses at the chemo cottage. When she asked how I was coping I told her how lucky I’d been. She told me that I haven’t, in fact, been lucky. “You’ve had all of the same side effects that everyone else gets. The difference is your attitude. Things that other people complain about, get distressed about, you just shrug your shoulders and see it as proof that your drugs are working.”
Which brings me to my other favourite cancer mantra: It’s better than being dead!
Yesterday we took a friend to lunch at a wonderful restaurant on a river where the only way in is by boat. A woman came up from the wharf and sat down in a vacant chair at our table. She started crying and explained that she’d recently had half her lung removed because of cancer. She was finding the shortness of breath distressing. We talked about cancer for a while, as you do, and then I said, “It seems to me that no matter what else is going on it’s still better than being dead.” She sat up as if I’d pinched her, smiled, wiped her eyes and said, “Of course. That’s true isn’t it!” We spoke a bit more about enjoying every day, being in the moment, making the most of it and really thinking about what all of those ‘survivor’ clichés mean. I think it helped. She caught my eye a few times during the afternoon to smile and give me a ‘thumbs up’.
If both of us had been diagnosed ten years ago there’s much less chance we would have ever had that conversation. The advances in cancer treatments continue to improve survival statistics. Recently a technician told me that my father’s cancer, bladder cancer, doesn’t kill anyone any more. I know that people that get cancer ten years from now will receive much better treatment than us. How wonderful. It really is only a matter of time before this disease is conquered and it’s great, in the gap between chemotherapy and surgery, to remember that for many, many people a cure is possible right now.
And when all else fails I count eyelashes.