There I was lying face down in a massive machine, arms tucked in at the sides, trying to meditate my way through another breast MRI. I was in the zone, imagining all of my friends whispering affirmations and placing a supportive hand on my back. But that made me so emotional that tears and snot and drool started fogging up my only view out. It was only a few days after my last chemotherapy treatment, but I felt the cancer walls caving in on me.
“Well, it’s about time you broke down,” my dad says. He holds my arm and walks me out of the basement floor of the UCSF cancer center. Why is it that after I receive the best possible news—that I am in remission, confirmed by a completely clear breast MRI—that’s when I start to feel scared out of my mind?
A few days earlier, as I sat in the infusion chair for the last time, I realized that chemo, however terrifying, brought with it a secure routine. At the hospital café I would see John, a prostate cancer survivor, who would give me a hug and a kale smoothie. I loved being cared for by nurses who asked about the girls as they unwrapped their supplies, accessed my port, and seemed genuinely interested as I disclosed the latest news about my bowels and anxiety level. The best part was seeing my oncologist click-clack over in her heels and fishnet stockings, always with encouraging news for me.
Then it hit me, a “holy shit” moment. For five months I’ve had toxic chemicals flowing through my veins. I had to gear up week after week for another dose of Taxol, even if my muscles weakened and I felt more tingling in my feet. I believed the treatment worked but there was no certainty until the end. I had to stay strong but now I can let down my guard.
Certain moments trigger what can only be described as PTSD.
In preparation for my oophorectomy in a couple of weeks, I had to have a pelvic ultrasound. I walked through the doors of the hospital where I gave birth to Yael and Ayla. I watched a mom wheel out with her newborn. At first I felt happy remembering both times I did that. It is such an incredible moment leaving the hospital with a new baby. During the ultrasound, the technician asked me when I got my last period. I told her it was March, that chemo had propelled me into menopause even before surgery. She said, “Well, that’s why it is hard to find your ovaries. They shrivel up when you go into menopause.”
Shrivel? Did you really just use that word in the presence of a 34 year-old woman?
My Dad escorted me out of the hospital crying over that one as well. How is it that just NINE months ago I was that mom holding a new baby? How could I have been the beacon of fertility and now have shriveled up ovaries? How did I grow a life inside my body while at the same time cancer spread all over my chest? It doesn’t make any sense!
After the breast MRI, my surgeon looked at me curiously as she watched tears pouring down my face: “You’ve had the best possible outcome,” she says. “After your last radiation treatment, you will no longer be a cancer patient. What are you doing all this for? Whether you live for two or fifty more years, go enjoy your life!”
The “two more years” got me. I wanted reassurance that there was no possible way the cancer would come back. That after all the layers of treatment there was not even one small chance that a microscopic cancer cell could be left behind. You see, the real courage is not facing chemo; it is moving past the fear of recurrence. As my surgeon sagely advises, it is recasting the fear into a positive, life-affirming energy.
Like other cancer patients, I need a little time to close the chemotherapy chapter. We live with side effects not knowing if they will go away. We are told the cancer is gone but not that it will never come back. It doesn’t just end when the needle comes out of the port for the last time.