They’ve returned — two of those little green bodies hovering over the feeder that hangs out on the deck. I haven’t seen the hummingbirds for a couple months now. Even the over-wintering Annas went off to some hidden place for awhile. But now two return, and they remind me to write, to keep the thread of life going, to tap into it regularly, as I do through writing.
I am still trying to adjust to the land of “survivorship,” as this period after the end of cancer treatment is called, rather like the “fourth trimester“ of pregnancy, when the birth is over and you‘re wondering what to do with that baby you spent so much time preparing for.
It’s a curious period. There are days that bring the clouds of uncertainty and trepidation, and the ones, like today, when all feels right. Not so different from life before cancer, actually, except for an increase in the weight of uncertainty. I go about my days much as I did before, and even took my roller blades out this morning. Really, there’s nothing else to do but attend to the regularity of phone calls, grocery lists, family responsibilities. Odd that a disease can appear in your life without warning, not even much discomfort, take you down a path of slash-and-burn treatment harsher than its presence, and then seemingly disappear, leaving you to wonder just what it was that derailed the last 10 months of your life.
Ten months. Time enough to have a baby in. Despite its equally rigorous demands on the body, though, pregnancy usually ends with a wonderful, tangible presence. This cancer? Well, I’m still not sure what it’s left me with.
Speaking of pregnancy, a recent meeting about breast cancer held in Barcelona showed that it’s okay for women to become pregnant after having breast cancer. I’m having trouble conceiving (pun intended) of those two concepts in the same setting — pregnancy and cancer, cancer and pregnancy. Surely there was once a time when these two events were never related. We still think of cancer as a disease of aging, but I’ve heard or read of a disturbing number of cases in younger people — lymphoma in 20-year-olds, breast cancer in women in their 30s, colon cancer showing up in a 42-year-old woman.
On Monday I attended a workshop at Harmony Hill, a lovely center near here that offers free retreats for cancer patients (http://harmonyhill.org/). Of the 10 participants, 4 of us were under 50. One woman was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40. Another had uterine cancer in her 20s. A third said that, because of her family history, she knew she’d end up with cancer but just didn’t know when. She’d gone through a double mastectomy and reconstruction. The woman sitting next to me, who had driven up all the way from Oregon, had gone in for her first routine colonoscopy and came out with a diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. This is no longer a disease of old age.
Scientists at that meeting in Barcelona pointed out the misconception that breast cancer most often arises because of genetics. (It‘s that misconception that kept me from thinking I was at risk.) They reported that up to a third of breast cancer cases could be avoided with lifestyle changes: eating better, exercising more. According to their statistics, the countries of Europe have 421,000 new cases annually, with 90,000 deaths. In the U.S., those numbers are 190,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths. With its larger population, Europe’s numbers overall don’t turn out to be as bad as they look at first glance, but the rates of breast cancer in France and Britain are statistically higher than in the U.S. The recommended lifestyle changes probably could make a big difference overall, but what about those who were already following most of these guidelines and still ended up with the disease?
The retreat I attended turned out to be a good experience. Lots of information about ways to manage stress — yoga, relaxation techniques, visualization (that “woo-woo stuff” as the instructor called it), — and the chance to walk a labyrinth, but I headed there with those same ambivalent feelings I had when attending the support dinner last fall. It’s good to know these services are available, but it’s not good to be in the club that needs them. In attending these events, I am forced to don the label of cancer patient (a label I can hide now that my hair has grown back). Like any other label — autistic, diabetic, hearing impaired — it’s a double-edged sword. In labeling myself and talking about this disease, I have received tremendous support. But to talk about it is to announce to the world that I have had cancer, and I wonder, once taking on that label, is it possible to lay it aside? When people see me, will their first thought now be, “Oh yes, she had cancer”? Though I am not the disease itself, it has certainly made its mark on me and part of my life will be inextricably linked to that experience. I’d like to know that I can, at some point, put this label away, like an old sweater set in mothballs in the closet. Not to be forgotten, but not to be defined by it.
Besides, if I’d had a choice in the matter, I’d rather have picked one of the problems described on this website: http://www.bonkersinstitute.org/index.html. They’d have been a lot more fun.