I cried in a Zoom meeting. I’m not sure why. I mentioned I was overwhelmed and then the tears came. Luckily, it was a virtual hangout with colleagues (and friends) who are all writers. If there’s ever a space to cry, it’s in front of other writers, because they get it and they lead with empathy.
But I wasn’t exactly sure where it came from. We weren’t talking about my cancer and then suddenly we were. I have a lot of tests coming up — a PET/CT, a brain MRI, and a physical, and I just completed my Circulating Tumor Cell test. It’s also my three-year cancer anniversary in October. My biopsy was on October 4, my diagnosis was on October 11, and my surgery was on Oct 31, 2019. I didn’t have to look these dates up — they are burned into my brain forever.
I am anxious, to say the least. I’ve been having, what I believe is a form of pleuritis, sharp pains when I breathe in sometimes. They come and go and it freaks me out. What could be causing inflammation? Did I strain a muscle? Do I have a virus lurking in there or a bacterial infection? Is it completely benign due to stress? Or are tumors forming in the lining of my lungs signaling my untimely death? These are the thoughts that stress me out. Would I do chemo again? Would I have to move to Germany to get better treatment? Would I just roll over and die already? The stress of it is all too much. But this is what every cancer patient goes through. Cancer doesn’t last a few months or years, it can last a lifetime. It’s a trauma response because cancer *can be* a great trauma.
I truly believe I am cancer free. My circulating tumor cell test showed no sign of cancer, it was a score of zero. Every test I’ve had has scored a zero. Every PET scan has shown no sign of disease. On October 31st I will be 3 years cancer free — yes, my surgery was on Halloween.
I use that date because I believe my cancer came out in surgery, and I was only left with “micro-disease.” (My first clear PET/CT was in February of 2020, so some people might say 2023 would be my 3-year anniversary.) With cancer patients the timeline is vague. Who really knows when the last cancer cell died, maybe it was just yesterday … or perhaps it’s tomorrow.
I’ve already beaten the odds. The median survival for my cancer is 16 months and I’m nearing 36, depending on how you count. The feels crazy to write. That so much time has passed and yet it feels like nothing at all. Chemo feels like it was yesterday. I can still feel the sticky leather of the infusion chair, taste the saline flush or maybe it was heparin, I can hear the ticking sound of the Neulasta injection. SNAP! The On-Pro is on, you’re good to go. Sorry, you’ll feel like shit for the next 24 to 48 hours. Take some Claritin for the excruciating bone pain.
It feels so close and simultaneously as if it never happened at all. I was just in Maui, swimming with sea turtles and learning to surf.
I still have a port — no one ever asks me about it except the TSA agent who pulled me aside for a search. No one knows I had cancer and when I say it, my hair is too long. The room gets quiet and they don’t know how to respond. So I just smile and say “I’m fine now! Cheers!” And that’s it. Everyone feels okay now. But inside I’m still hurt. I’m still mad. I’m still in pain. I still feel like I’ve lost so much, but all my scars are hidden. Seven inches across my belly, a blood test you can’t see, a port that is easily covered by a shirt, a missing uterus and ovaries.
I’m chocolate-covered chemo — you see the sweet, smiling, survivor, not the crushed poisoned girl inside. Maybe that’s why I cry in public sometimes. It’s always right there beneath the surface, ready to come out.
Luckily, the tears wash away the pain. The scanxiety will eventually leave. Because when I get the results — which I will — I know they will find no cancer there and for six months, I can live in blissful ignorance once again.