May 30, 2010


it's official...i had my port taken out! i probably was the most excited patient in the entire day surgery unit friday morning. in fact, i may have been the only excited isn't known for being fun or exciting. unless, of course, you're a cancer survivor having the device through which you received chemotherapy removed from your body. it's one of those hugely significant events that probably only makes sense to those of you who have been through it, but it's like being freed from life as a cancer patient, it marks the end of being actively in treatment, and it means that your oncologist doesn't really think you'll need it...which is the biggest vote of confidence in the world.

the actual procedure was a piece of cake...i checked in to the day surgery unit, waited, and then got called back...on previous visits, i've met a nurse who takes me to the pre-op area to get completely undressed and meet with the nurse, doctor, anesthesiologists, and whoever else before the actual surgery. this time, the nurse told my mom that she was going to take me and i'd be back in fifteen minutes and ready to go home...and, to make it even better, i only changed from the waist up. it's a funny time in your life when you realize you are comparing the quality of doctor/hospital/office visits with how undressed you are...the less undressed you are, the better the appointment usually is. anyways, they prepped the area, injected a good deal of lidocane, then i saw the knife...and, for some reason, i had a moment of freaking out. i haven't had a surgical procedure since october, and i was quite out of it for all the previous something about knowing what was going to happen gave me a bit of hesitation. but, my surgeon is one of the most incredible doctors i've ever met, and she was quick to assure me i'd do just fine...and she continued to stand next to me and talk with me for the rest of the procedure (which was actually done by a resident). it was an odd experience to feel the cutting and tugging, and the surgeon explained that since i'm young and healthy, the tissue grew around the port really quickly. so, he cut and pulled for quite a while, and then gave one big tug and pulled it right out. apparently, throughout the procedure i was scrunching my nose and making faces the entire time. the poor resident was so worried that he was hurting me...but, for any of you who know me, you know that those faces really don't signify anything too unusual. then, i asked to see it...and the resident had it cleaned off for me so i could take a picture of it. and, that was that...adios, port.

right after i left the hospital, a funny thing happened.... usually, i have tried to cover my scars, not really wanting people to see them, ask about them, or whatever else people usually do. i left the hospital with a large dressing sticking out from my shirt, and i told my mom i wanted to stop at my apartment to change before we went out to lunch. i got home, came inside, and realized i didn't want to change. for the first time, i felt so proud of my scars, and my big, ugly bandage. it's not that i want people to stare or ask about them now...but, i don't feel any hesitation about telling my story. there was something seriously siginifcant about having my port removed that i hadn't made my physical self feel like a survivor instead of a patient. mentally and emotionally, i think i've been there for a while...but, i never realized how much the physical piece was really holding me back.

so, now i am totally free from the role of cancer patient...and learning the new forever role as a cancer survivor. it's an interesting transition, but one i'm trying to embrace with as much of an open mind as i did my previous role. there are many, many lessons to be learned from this chapter of life, but it's a whole new approach. life was totally turned upside down almost a year ago, and then i spiraled through an entirely different world of cancer...and now, on the other side, i have a perspective and purpose that i am so appreciative for. there will be lots of challenges, but i feel so in awe of the chance i've been given to learn...about myself, about life, and about empathy. i'm beyond excited to use the past year of my life to propel me into a new life of helping others and validating my own experience by 'paying it forward'.

the most common response when i tell people that i want to be involved in the cancer world...volunteering, pursuing a career in oncology social work, contributing to support groups, etc., is that i should 'take a break from cancer' and 'live my life'. perhaps my situation and approach are unique (in fact, i know they are)...but my desire to give back and help others in similar situations is not something i'm pushing myself to do because i feel i have to. it's because i genuinely want to...and, that's what i wish more people understood. just as my optimism towards cancer was genuine, so is my desire to help other cancer patients and their families. it may be unique, and it may be an exception to the rule...but, i know i'm ready. and, if it turns out that i'm not...there's only one way to learn that...through experience.

May 18, 2010

did that really happen?

i really do wake up most days and have a hard time believing that i actually had cancer, and i actually went through six months of chemo and three weeks of radiation. sure, i've got lots of little physical reminders, but life just kept moving through cancer treatment, and then the day it was over it was like it never even happened. i suppose that's a good thing, but i sometimes wonder if i've pushed aside lots of important things i should have dealt with and they'll come back one day and bite me. it's a hard thing to explain, but i almost feel as if i wasn't upset or sad enough.... that, however, is probably a product of our own assumptions. before cancer, i always imagined if i had it, that it would be the worst thing that ever happened to me, and i'd spend my life sad about it. i think this is how we view cancer patients and survivors in our society...but, it seems further and further from the truth every day that i live this experience.

anyways, i'm now two and a half months since my last chemo treatment, and three weeks from my last radiation treatment. time has really flown! lots of you have asked how i'm feeling, or what lingering effects i have...luckily, i feel really good. my energy is definitely returning, and while i don't have excess energy, i'm finding that i'm enjoying longer days. i used to be tired by mid-afternoon, and could only manage to make and eat dinner before going to bed after, i can make it through my work day just fine, and when i come home i have a few good hours before i'm in bed. the stomach pain i was having has totally gone away, and now i'm almost certain that it was the prilosec causing all the discomfort (even though the GI specialist didn't agree)...either way, i'm glad that's gone. my hair is definitely growing back...eyebrows are almost totally back to normal, and i have my first haircut since last summer this morning to even out whatever i had left with what's coming in. probably the worst lingering effect of treatment is my skin...i have had a rash on my feet since i finished chemo that won't go away, and i have patchy red, dry, itchy skin on my upper arms and back. but, if dry skin and a rash is the worst of it...that's fine. i know i was lucky with how well i handled treatment and side effects...the more i read on the forum, the more i realize that i really did sail through treatment.

the most exciting news is that i'm scheduled to have my port removed a week from friday! it will be so nice to get rid of it, as it really just is one more reminder of cancer (and a little bit uncomfortable). i'll always wear my scars proudly, but i don't need a scar with a bump under it for my pride. after that, if all goes well, it will be nothing cancer related until august when i will have my first post-treatment scan, and follow up visits with both my medical and radiation oncologists.

that's all for now...i'll do my best to keep up with this blog, and all of my many thoughts of being a cancer survivor. until then...fight on, warriors!

May 5, 2010

finding purpose.

i woke up this morning, and had a totally surreal realization...i survived cancer. that probably sounds really ridiculous to all of you, but that's exactly how it felt. almost ten months ago, i was told i had a large mass in my chest...and then i was thrown into surgeries, scans, chemo, radiation, appointments, anxiety, fear, etc. then, i woke up today as a normal twenty something. a normal twenty something who's also a cancer survivor.

i don't know why, or how, i've been able to move past it so 'easily' (nothing about this has really been easy). perhaps my ability to maintain a pretty decent sense of normalcy throughout this has really braced me for my return to the real world. i feared the transition for some time, and then when i woke up this morning i realized it sort of just happened while i wasn't paying attention.

and, while i'm quite excited that i've had very little emotional trauma lately, there are a few things that have been a little more difficult.... for one, life seems a little more flat right now than it has over the last few months. i thought about this on my way to work the other day, trying to determine what about life was missing. i think what it boils down to is for the last ten months, i've woken up with a clear purpose - to fight cancer. there's a heroic attitude that goes with that...i woke up feeling proud, strong and determined. my goal was so clear to me, and that was the most important thing i would do with my day. now, i don't wake up every day and actively fight cancer...and, it sort of feels like i have less purpose. or, less urgent purpose. i know i have lots of purpose for being here...and more than i ever did before. it'll just be a new challenge to find that purpose and dig deep to uncover that same strength and will that i had when my task was to fight cancer. this one might not be thrown in my face in quite the same way, but i know i've been given the experience and insight to seek it out myself.

the other part of this that will be a little difficult is realizing who i am as a cancer survivor. it would be silly to think i'll go back to the same person i was pre-cancer...and, to be honest, i would never want to go back to being that person again. i know i am more mature, more insightful, grateful, kind, compassionate and honest than i ever was. i'm more genuine...i'm more me. cancer makes you vulnerable. you have to find out what you're really made of when you're faced with contemplating your own mortality, the reality of your relationships with others, your self image, your will to push forward and your breaking point. there are lots of times when you're fighting cancer where you don't care at all what others are thinking about you...and these are the best moments to get to know yourself. and, sometimes it really sucks to look at yourself in the most vulnerable moments...because, it's at those moments that you really can see the things you don't like about yourself. but, with an open mind, it's those moments of awareness that allow us to make positive changes.

so, what's my plan? to use the last ten months of my life to propel me forward with sincere purpose. i will work to maintain all the positive qualities i learned through my experience. i will never spend time doing things i just 'sort of' enjoy. i will focus my priorities on things that i really do value. i will work harder than i've ever worked to strengthen the bonds that i've made with people who stood by me through my journey through cancer. and, i will find purpose in every day, every moment, and every activity. just as i found optimism in cancer, i will find purpose in life after cancer...i just have to open my eyes, and my mind.