Note: This is part 5 of a 5-part series of journal excerpts written when I was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago.. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this series
March 4, 1996
My treatments are finished. Last week, my husband and I went to see Dr. B. She came in and checked me over and said I looked fine.
What did I want from her? I wanted her to tell me something that was definite and real and magical and true, all at the same time. There was something very important I needed to know, but I didn’t know how to ask for it.
“I feel as if I should ask you how to live,” I said.
What do I do now? I wanted to say. Now that it’s all over, tell me who I am. I’ve forgotten who I am, who I used to be. Remind me. I need you to tell me, because I don’t know.
Dr. B told me I should live “normally.” I should do all the exercise and work and play and travel I feel capable of doing. I’ll be coming in for checkups every three months for the first two years, then less frequently. In the meantime, signs I should watch for include persistent, sharp, “bony” pains – whatever those are – coughs and uterine bleeding.
That’s all she said. She told me all of that and probably more. But she didn’t tell me how to live.
It’s been a tough summer for me. I wanted so much to be completely healthy and vibrant and to understand what had happened to me and how my life had changed. I wanted to be transformed by having cancer. I wanted to be a better, wiser, deeper person. Didn’t I learn something profound that I never wanted to forget? I guess so, but I couldn’t remember what it was.
Sometimes I think I’m the only person on earth who wants to talk about how I had cancer. It’s deeply affected our lives since last year, but my husband and the kids and most of my friends want to ignore it. I’m reading a draft of (Dallas internist and cancer survivor) Wendy Harpham’s latest book, When a Parent Has Cancer, and she talks about the disease as an elephant in the living room and how families will go to terrific lengths to pretend the elephant isn’t there. I’ve always visualized cancer as an elephant in the room, too; I wonder if Republicans use different imagery.
September 8, 1996
Today’s the first anniversary of my diagnosis. I’ve cried four or five times, and I’ve had long talks with my husband about how I need more support from him. I’ve also gotten in a big fight with our daughter, yelled at our son and flung my shoes across our bedroom because I was so upset – which is probably only the second time in my life I’ve done anything that tempestuous. I felt like Maria Callas.
For the past several months, I’ve had an image fixed in my mind of how I should look, act, feel and be as I recover from cancer. It’s the image of a woman who’s striding confidently through life – the same way models do in a tampon commercial. After a few tough days, this woman’s conquered cancer and moved beyond her petty fears. She’s grateful for every new day she’s alive. Her hair is perfect and her hem never droops and, come to think of it, she looks a lot like Martha Stewart. She’s probably making something terribly clever with her old chemo tubes, like a centerpiece for a dinner party – while here I am, lying on the floor howling and generally having one of those long, dark nights of the soul in the middle of the afternoon.
I don’t even like people like this woman. So why do I want to be her?
Because, that’s why. Because I want it to be that simple, that easy.
There’s nothing that’s picturesque or noble about the terror and fears I have, but what I keep trying to do is to look at them differently and understand them. I’m trying to learn to accept the fear instead of fighting it or discounting it or pretending it isn’t there. Fear of cancer, fear of suffering and death and of leaving my family and this life are now a part of me, a part of my body and my mind. This is where I live now. This is who I am.
Last fall, when I was feeling so exhilarated, I used to tell myself how lucky I was. Instead of getting cancer, I could have been hit by a bus – and I would have missed all the colors and vibrancy and emotions in my life. That’s what I went around telling myself.
Months later, I finally figured out that getting cancer really is like getting hit by a bus. It’s just that you don’t notice it at first. You’re still walking around, talking, thinking, breathing, feeling; you’ve survived; you’re strong; you’re going to live. You’re just fine, thank you. You’re doing great. Let’s talk about something else.
Then, out of nowhere, one of those buses slams into you again and again. They leave panic in your eyes and tread marks on your heart. Or maybe they just break your heart again and again, and you try to put it back together before the next bus comes.
A friend has a recurrence.
Your three-month checkup is next week.
You have a pinprick of pain or a funny cough. Or you find a suspicious lump, which is redundant, since all lumps or pimples or mosquito bites are now harbingers of death and you realize cancer has made you into a hypochondriac.
You go to a middle-school graduation ceremony at your child’s school. You wonder if you’re going to be alive when she graduates from high school.
You’re feeling fine. Then you see an article about cancer or an obituary of someone you know, and it feels like you’ve been kicked in the stomach.
This is what my therapist tells me is my new reality. My life isn’t ever going to be the same and eventually, I’ll come to terms, to an easier truce, with an uncertain future.
Last week, I drove our son’s carpool home from middle school. Four boys punched and arm-wrestled and tried to get each other into headlocks. The fifth boy played “Louie, Louie” on his trumpet. It was like Animal House on wheels. Careening along the streets, humming and laughing to myself, I felt exhilarated and full of life and hope.
Even in moments like that, I know I’m not safe, and I know, deep down, that I’ll never be safe again. But that’s where I am in this new year of my life. I’m between buses. And I’m learning there’s life there, playing in heavy traffic, and it’s the only life I’ve got.
I learn this. Then I forget it. Then I learn it all over again.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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Ruth, You’ve really captured what it’s all about. Those alternating feelings of exhilaration and fear; those moments of absolute panic and questions about how to move forward. There’s no doubt that it’s never the same. All I know is that time distills the feelings, but never rids us of them.
Your sentiments are beautifully expressed.
I don’t know what the right words are for this–I’ve enjoyed reading this series sounds so wrong. This last post, although it’s about your life after cancer reminds me of what I think it feels like sometimes in mothering. At times you want to be that idea of perfection, even though that ideal is 1) unrealistic and 2) annoying. Amazing that you’ve shared this. Thanks.
This is lovely Ruth, although I know it was horrible to live through. I appreciate you sharing your experience with us. I know it can’t have been easy to go back over all of this and relive it again.
Thank you so much for sharing this story with us in five installments Ruth. This last one is so moving — so happy/sad at the same time. I am so glad you got through that, and learned how to live again (like going off to New York for a year, and getting rid of 1500 books)! hugs and love to you.
Wow – I need to go back and read the first parts of this blog. You have captured so many of my exact feelings. The bits about how you feel like you get hit by a bus over and over again, at the oddest times … I can totally relate.
thanks for your blog – I appreciate it.
Well Ruth, this really moved me in ways I didn’t expect. It brought to mind thoughts and feelings and memories about myself and my family. While I haven’t personally suffered from cancer and I don’t know what it’s like to try to live life even after going into remission, I witnessed the ravaging of my father by cancer and I must say that the emotional struggle he faced in his last year far surpassed the physical. Sadly, my father died, but you didn’t and here you are fifteen years later. I’d almost love a 15 years later epilogue about how you feel reading those entries now. What they mean to you now that you’ve lived so much life since the disease.
Like Kristen – I relate to this ideal of perfection, the ideal in our heads about how we think we ought to be at any given time in our lives, and the disconnect between that and our reality. I have so enjoyed this series! This provoked much thought for me, even though I myself have not gone through this experience – and it makes me think even more about the friends I have who have had cancer or are currently undergoing treatment.
Loved that part about the elephant in the room and wondering if Republicans use different imagery! Thanks for sharing this very personal journey, Ruth, and congrats on your recovery!
Quite a read Ruth. It is hard for me to think of you not being able to see how much you traveled, how much you learned about yourself during the span of these journals. It is very evident in the reading. I guess being too close to the action of the story really does not give one the perspective needed to see the overall arc of your journey. Glad you posted these
I loved the entire series. Thank you for sharing it with us!
I’m sure many women can related to your mixed emotions, so well expressed in this series. I’m just glad this story has a happy ending.
Wonderful, moving series. Must have taken it out of you to relive it all. Thanks.
Thank you for sharing this, Ruth. It was wonderful and terrifying. It was funny and poignant. I especially liked the part about the elephant in the room.
I’m coming up on my 16th anniversary from diagnosis, and it was difficult to read your series, to go back in time to the horror and intensity–yes, horror–of those times. But I thank you for sharing what you experienced–you captured so well the pain, the life-questioning, the challenges of every moment during treatment and after.
Wish I would have found this 8 years ago. The worst is that everyone feels like this but no one tells you it’s going to happen. The doctors are into problem-solving the physical part and no one tells you about the uncontrolled sobbing at 3 a.m. when no one, not even your beloved husband or dearest cat can console you. Or the panic at every mammogram. You captured it perfectly. Amen.