A Grammatical Conundrum

Last week–between mouthfuls of pollo tapatio at my favorite restaurant, each bite, washed down with icy Corona, so exquisitely delicious that I shouldn’t have been thinking of anything else–I got it. Calling us breast cancer “survivors” is simply an elegant solution to a verb tense problem.

We who have been diagnosed with breast cancer–whenever, however many years ago–cannot use the past tense. We can’t say, “I had breast cancer,” the way we might say if, for example, we had had pneumonia. One may have pneumonia, but then, with some antibiotics and luck, one doesn’t.

And some of the more presently fortunate of us won’t say, either, that “I have breast cancer,” because hopefully we don’t. But there’s always that fear that one little cell could turn up somewhere, which is why, last week when I suffered a rotator cuff injury, my rheumatologist worried that I had bone cancer. I’d suffered a similar injury in my other shoulder, years ago, pre-breast cancer diagnosis, but that was when a shoulder injury was just a shoulder injury.

And it’s not called remission for us when we run a clean mammogram, as it is for a couple of my friends who live with hepatitis C. They’ve been through chemotherapy too, but for them there is no kidding themselves: they still have hepatitis C; it’s just not active right now. It’s not fun, but they know.

We breast cancer people, however, don’t. There are no definitive tests to give us the all-clear. It’s a special kind of anxiety for us. We might have cancer and we might not. We have moved for the rest of our lives into a DMZ, a mine field between the countries of the ill and the well.

It’s been important for me to find, for most of my moments, another way to look at this. Nobody really knows what’s happening in their bodies–the people in the well zone just enjoy more illusions. I’m really no more vulnerable than they are: I just have more information.

Survivor’s Surprises

I haven’t really wanted to talk about it, not wanting to appear pathetic, but I’m feeling almost swept away by the power of it all. I’m feeling physically quite a bit better, although my right breast feels radioactive, amazingly hot to my touch, while the left one is equally cold.  I have to keep exercising to maintain the range of motion in my right arm–a definite tightening of something continues there. I’m still experiencing joint pain, although that is letting up.

But hardest is the emotional part. It’s not over. I’m very shaky these days. I’m going through the furious stage of loss I think. A good friend from MN visited this weekend and observed I got easily pissed off about this and that. She thought it was healthy and great. I’m not so sure. But it does feel like a loss process. The loss of what? Freedom from the medical world that once it’s got its grip on you, does not let go? The illusion of perpetual health? Worry about recurrance?

After the chinup stage and all the support, I’m now dealing with the reality of being a breastcancer survivor, which is not as physically or emotionally painless as I’d assumed. It’s hard not to get depressed. I cry easily. The support is pretty much gone, at least the daily support and the sweet med people who cheered me on, so when even a small loss or rejection comes along, I collapse.

I’ll get through it like everything, but I’m not Lance Armstrong. People like him inspire and depress simultaneously, although I did cheer him on and was happy to see him win. But now I feel as if I’m dealing with a small death…everyone thinks it’s time to get over it but the grief is not so easily assimilated. A hospice volunteer for many years, I’m now doing hospice work on myself.

Oh God, I’m Shrinking!

I didn’t mind at all being lopsided all this time as long as my right breast, the “treatment area”, was bigger than the left. I thought both were pretty damn gorgeous and it really never bothered me. I didn’t mind the scars. I didn’t even mind the blue nipple or the almost purple color much of the skin has turned. But suddenly, in a matter of four days, the right breast has shrunk so that it’s noticeably smaller and I find this incredibly upsetting.

I think sometimes I hold the stress, appearing normal, until a trigger releases it, so my painful reaction to my shrunken breast is probably due to something more. I seem to skate along pretty well most of the time–and I can even be a bit smug when I feel I’m in control–but I don’t have much left for dealing with anything unexpected. It’s part of depression, I think, to have few emotional reserves. My fabulous support team, probably assuming it’s almost over, have almost all disappeared.

But it’s not over. In some ways, it is just beginning. I have been a hospice volunteer for years, and I’ve observed that the most difficult time for persons suffering a heart-breaking loss is after everything is over and everybody’s written their sympathy card or left their casserole and, usually, necessarily, gone back to their own demanding lives.

But as hard as it’s been to be a cancer patient, being a cancer survivor is a new kind of hard, and although I’m incredibly grateful for a good prognosis, nothing will ever be the same for me. So please don’t go just yet. I don’t think I can do this alone.