It’s been nearly two years since I was diagnosed with aggressive, fast-growing breast cancer, and nearly a year since I completed “active” treatment. In my case, “active” treatment included four months of chemotherapy (1 drug for a year), a lumpectomy, and 33 radiation treatments. As of my last mammogram and check up a few weeks ago, I’m still cancer-free.
I’m incredibly lucky.
Four people I know died from cancer this year. I’ve had a difficult time making sense of their losses.
I’m so grateful to be here, even if I don’t understand why.
That’s what I want to write about.
When you survive cancer, everyone who knows and loves you is overjoyed and relieved. Collective deep exhale.
I’ve been somewhat reluctant to write about my cancer overmuch. Does the world need more cancer stories? We made it through so why, on some level, relive it?
Maybe because to fully understand my gratitude you need to understand the context in which I was given so much.
A week after my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove a cancerous lymph node(s) and to implant a port in my chest. The port, a quarter-sized catheter, was positioned just under my clavicle. Under my skin, the port had a septum through which my chemotherapy drugs would be injected directly into my jugular vein. Easy access for my medical team and no chance of collapsing arm veins for me.
I woke up from that surgery crying and saying, “It hurts.” And while I don’t remember that exact moment, I remember that for days afterward, I felt like I’d been kicked repeatedly in the chest.
When I had my first chemotherapy treatment a few days later (December 22), my girlfriend at the time, and a few dear friends, were with me. I had already been to “chemo class” as I called it, so I knew what the process looked like, and I had a notebook full of information, including three pages of side effects for each drug I’d receive through my port.
The nurse repeated the process to me and asked if I wanted the “cold spray” when she put my IV in. The “cold spray” temporarily numbs the skin. I said yes. Yes, please.
Needles have never really bothered me. I’m fine to have my blood drawn. But before the nurse put my IV in, I instinctively grabbed my girlfriend’s hand. In that moment, I think I needed grounding and connection and physical reassurance that I could endure everything that lay ahead. I think somehow I knew that once that IV went in, my life would change forever.
The nurse smiled, looked me in the eyes and said, “Take a deep breath for me.” I did and watched her arm draw back. She inserted the needle with the force necessary to penetrate the rubber pad beneath my skin. The sound it made going in was a deep, toneless “womp,” not unlike the sound a ripe melon makes when you thump it, which is actually the sound of your own body giving way to force, to intrusion. As she stepped near me to adjust the IV, I felt a wave of nausea wash over me, more from the sound than anything. I felt that sound deep within me, and I couldn’t believe how incredibly strange it was to have someone inside this most vulnerable part of my body.
In subsequent treatments, that wave of nausea was no longer an issue, but the strangeness of the experience itself remained. I realized later that whomever held my hand in those moments (a must for every treatment), always inhaled with me. We took that breath in tandem, I think, because on some level, we were all getting hit in the jugular.
Over the next four months, once my IV was in, we were in for a four to six hour-long process during which I received four drugs: Herceptin, Perjeta, Taxotere, and Carboplatin. Plus, we began with Benadryl to prevent any allergic reactions and a cocktail of anti-nausea meds.
While I was never able to tolerate Benadryl orally, it mostly just rendered me sleepy and slightly stoned intravenously. I got to know when it was kicking in. I’d feel like a veil was being drawn over me, some sort of strange Instagram-style cancer filter. My motor skills slowed; my speech slurred.
That was Day 1 of treatment.
I am so grateful to so many people, for so much.
When I see the people who were so present during my treatment now, they beam at me, hug me extra hard, sometimes with eyes glassy from joy. And I know we are all standing there thinking: “Can you fucking believe we made it?”
I just want everyone, everyone, to know how grateful I am for every moment, every email, every Tupperware of soup, every time you held my hand, or sent me good energy. Because here’s the thing: my gratitude hasn’t diminished. It continues to expand and grow.