Thursday, January 9, 2014

Is there such a thing as "Cancer Free?"

In the week or so it's taken me to recover from the emotional roller coaster my "Big C" Marathon caused me, I think about what a friend reminded me when I expressed my reborn anxiety - "But, Rica, you're 'Cancer Free.'"

Is there ever such a thing as being "Cancer Free?" It's not like I'm a can of soda - when I have zero sugar in my ingredients, and there is a governing body that approves of the label, and I'm declared "Sugar Free," therefore I feel sugar free. I would just BE sugar free. 

The trouble is, I remember what it was like to truly BE Cancer Free.

Maybe it's a little more like being decaffeinated coffee - I once had caffeine, but it has been stripped out of my being. Caffeine was inherent to my being coffee, but after an extraction process, I'm now lacking my caffeine, left a sad, watery shell of who I used to be.

So would that really make me "Decancerated Rica" as opposed to "Full Strength Rica?"

Still, no. Because the coffee only went through two states - Caffeinated, then Decaffeinated.

I actually went through FOUR states - 1) Rica 2) With Cancer, Blissfully Unaware Rica, 3) Full-on Cancer Rica, 4) Now "Cancer Free" Rica. But, note, State 1 does NOT equal State 4.

I will never, EVER be "Rica" - with no state of cancer at all. State 1 will never exist for me again.

I have been permanently changed. I have the scars to prove it. There isn't a morning that goes by when I am not immediately reminded of the fact that I had cancer in my body. Reminders surround and are within me. From the fact that the house has been under 60 degrees every morning I awake this week since the polar vortex came into effect and, while I have goosebumps all over my body, my breasts are just there and my nipples no longer react nor do they perk up - because they are numb chunks of thigh skin, tattooed in a faded pink. When I rub my eyes, and begin to scratch itches on my shoulders, and I brush against my cleavage, the skin on the top of my right breast senses my finger tips normally, but on the left side, there is an irritating tingle, barely cognizant of the fact that it's not an unpleasant scrubbing action triggering a response, but a gentle touch.

My bones and joints ache more than ever in this chilly weather. I cannot tolerate cold the same way I used to before chemo. While I was always a "Summer Baby," and I hated Winter, I could endure it. My elbows didn't ache from the core. My knuckles didn't stiffen. My spine wouldn't surge with prickly cold. But it does now.

Once in the shower, I realize that I really don't have to do a self-breast exam anymore, even though it's become second nature. Instead, as I begin the futile, and irrelevant exam, I feel the horrible horizontal scar that I had assumed would have completely disappeared on each breast where my areolae used to be. I feel the strange pucker around that line, so the breast skin doesn't hang correctly on the lower right half of the right breast, and there is still a tough, thickened patch of subsurface scar tissue on the inner side of my left breast.

As I sit on the commode, facing the cabinet with glass doors in which I kept my feminine products, I see the package of maxi pads I'd picked up right before my oopharectomy, out of habit, forgetting that just a couple of days later, would become irrelevant and would sit dormant unless a visitor needed one, or my daughter has her first "visit from her cousin." I see the last of my tampons, which haven't budged since April.

When I make it back to my room, and I sit at my vanity, I measure the length of my hair. Now, it's just tickling my shoulders. I pull at the longest piece and measure to see how long the curl now unfurls, and to see if it hits my shoulder blades yet. I shake my head, as I still have a way to go. I reach back and see if I can reach the back of my hair. It's nowhere to be found. I have at least another year to grow my hair to the length where I felt comfortable.


After (Straight)

After (Curly)
I try and remember what tasks I have to do today, and I find that I can't remember what they are. I take a minute and try and remember what day of the week it is. I have to resort to peeking at my iPad or iPhone to check the calendar. Since chemo, I still find that I have trouble remembering which day of the week it is. (Sorry, Dr. Tepler, you can't tell me there's no such thing as chemo brain.)

I look in the mirror. My eyebrows have grown back, and they are starting to get unruly. But I'm scared to tweeze them. And, now that they are back, I find I can't pencil them in as well as I used to when there were no hairs there. Ironically, my eyebrows look far less realistic now when I try and do them than they did when I had no eyebrows.

I see a double chin where there wasn't one before. I see a puffy version of myself. When I started chemo, I was told to eat when I could, as likely, I would lose my appetite. Ironically, of all the cancer patients I knew, my appetite never died. In fact, I ended up gaining weight. Whether it was from the steroids I was put on heading into chemo, the fact that I was pretty much "benched" from physical activity after I tore mastectomy souchers and gave myself an infection, and never recovered from the atrophy that induced, or that my energy post-chemo has never recovered, I am in a terrible physical condition.

For the first time in my life, I'm not physically fit. I was never a twig, but I was always fit. Not since chemo.

And, at this point, it isn't even a full hour since I've awoken, and I've recounted how many reminders that I had cancer?

How can that be called "Cancer Free?"

This year, I will be "Cancer Free" in March. Oh really?

So, here's what I've realized:

I don't care if you survived the surgeries and treatments a day, a week, a month, a year, or a decade ago - we are never "Cancer Free" again. We may be "Decancerated," but we'll NEVER be "Cancer Free" again.

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