The life of a survivor can be much harder than the life of a patient, at least in my experience. Recently an image came to mind of what this transition feels like.
I thought back to a year ago. I tried to imagine what it was like to have no hair, how it felt to let the water fall on my bald head in the shower, how I used to tie my scarf before walking out the door every morning. I thought back to what it was like to pull down my shirt so the nurses could have access to my port, the blood flow running through my entire body, the vulnerability of that moment every single time.
I thought back to the slow recline in the infusion chair, the nurses talking me through every single aspect of my health from head (dizziness?) to toe (tingling?). Alongside chemotherapy a life force ran through me as a dear friend or family member sat by my side and the oncology staff gave me every ounce of their attention.
And then the image came to mind: an infant in the womb, umbilical chord lying peacefully beside her attached to a placenta, her life force, everything she needs to survive.
Cancer patients experience some degree of infantilization throughout treatment. We are transported back to the helplessness of an infant, our lifeline connected to an infusion machine dripping a toxic amniotic fluid. We lose our sense of control over our bodies. We give our lives over to our doctors and our community holding us up.
Then, as we transition from patient to survivor, there is a pulling away of this life force. The port comes out, dinner no longer on our doorstep (oh, how I miss all those people who would come do our dishes all the time!), and while we might be grateful that the cancer is gone, our infantile needs are not.
It is the cutting of the cancer cord.
People ask me “how am I doing?” My answer:
I am a newborn, growing brand new hair, living in my mother’s house trying to be a grown up when all I really feel like is a child again. In the evening I tell Yael stories of what it was like to grow up in this house, alongside my siblings. While the time feels far away, the feeling doesn’t.
When my daughters cry out, I want to cry right along with them. I envy that release, the permission to let go emotionally whenever they need to. Yael and I shared a moment like this when we were throwing rocks into Lake Tahoe last September.
I am growing up right alongside my daughters, but for me it’s an abrupt transition from infant to grown up. Since I’ve been living at home I’ve wanted the kind of mother I need to be to my young children.
There are moments when it feels as if I cannot do it, like expecting a baby to handle more than she can. However, there are times when I can see a change and suddenly feel like a grown up again.
Like in this moment:
Ian had just left for Spain. It was a Sunday morning, he had just said good-bye, and I could see that Yael was struggling. She was clinging, irritable, pushing her sister around.
I took her by both hands and sat her down so we could be eye-to-eye. I looked into her face, growing up before my eyes, realizing that there is so much she can understand now that she did not understand when I had cancer. Holding her hands in mine, my face up close to hers I said:
“I want you to know that if you feel sad about daddy leaving, I will be here for you.”
And just like that her face lit up, she leaned in for a big hug, and playfully walked away ready to go about her day.
The realization hits home. I need to cut my tie to the cancer cord, to the intricate web of support, the placenta of life that was around me when I was in treatment. I still do not want to let go. It feels easier to be a patient, a baby again, letting other people worry about me, than to be a grown up and a mother.
I can only hope that I have more moments like the one I had with Yael. When I can face the truth: that the one who is going to cut that cancer umbilical cord is not one of my doctors. It is certainly not my mother.
It is me.