I Conquered Cancer
The painting above reminds me that I am strong. I painted it after my mastectomy to remind myself that I was a warrior, a conqueror, and that my cancer was being destroyed.
To people who are not close to me — I seem to live a normal life. I seem active and involved. And, the reality is — I am.
I embrace life — but have to respect my limits.
I recently returned from a two week trip to Europe. I traveled through Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic and I had a great time. From the photos I posted, it appeared that I saw and did many things. And I did. But the photos don’t tell the whole story — they don’t show the times when I needed to take a few hours or a day off to rest.
I didn’t push myself when my body got tired. I’ve learned not to.
When I got back from traveling, I went back to the normal flow of my life. I teach art classes. I write. I paint. I go out with friends. I play D&D. I am involved with my church. I go on dates.
Living in Austin, I try to listen to live music whenever I can.
This Thursday I went to hear bluegrass at a craft brewery with married friends. Their kids danced with me in front of the stage. The next night, I listened to a coloratura at a small cafe. She sang everything from German opera to jazz and pop. She was amazing and I was enchanted.
The following day I drove 40 minutes to teach a healing art class. Today is Sunday and I was looking forward to church and taking Mom out to lunch.
Yet when I woke up this morning…
My body aches. I slept 10 hours yet I do not feel rested. In fact, I feel exhausted. I pushed too hard the last few days and now I’m paying for it.
This is the legacy of cancer
I had chemotherapy 15 years ago. My cancer is gone. But its legacy remains.
I am in remission and most of the time I seem like a normal, healthy person. I’m active and energetic. But when it hits me, and it hits me hard.
And, even on days when I have energy — I need to pace myself. I need to schedule regular rest breaks.
Part of this is just growing older, I know, but most of it is a residue of the cancer.
I was only 36 when I was diagnosed, only 37 when done with treatment. Though cancer-free, I was debilitated for a long time. It took years to get to the point where I could manage simple household tasks without exhaustion.
I would do a load of laundry or cook a meal, then need to lie down to rest. If I didn’t, if I forced myself to push on, the results were not pretty.
I would become dizzy or faint and not be able to wake up the next day. I’d sleep 14 hours despite setting an alarm. My brain would operate in a fog. I would lose focus and my body would hurt. My immune system would be compromised and I’d get very sick — pneumonia and bronchitis were common occurrences until I learned to give my body the rest it needed.
Now, I am much recovered. I can go out with friends, teach art classes, paint, write, go for walks, hike and dance — but there is always the awareness that I can only push so far before my body will give out.
I Take Responsibility for Self-Care
When people see me living my life, they don’t realize how fragile my body still is. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want to anyone feeling sorry for me. I don’t want to be seen as “special”.
BUT… it also means that I have to take care of myself. No one else looks out for me. I have to be self-aware and love myself enough to care for my needs.
Going through life after cancer has been hard, but it’s also had many blessings.
Thanks to cancer, I’ve learned to love and appreciate my body no matter what it looks like. My body looks like a battle zone, but I no longer judge myself based on its appearance. Instead, I marvel at its strength and resilience.
I am thankful my body conquered a cancer that kills most people. I am grateful that it allows me to continue to live, to create, to love people and pets, to travel and enjoy beauty and nature and delicious food and lovely music.
My struggles have taught me not to judge. This is a blessing.
Once upon a time, when someone would tell me about their struggles with fatigue or social anxiety or weight gain, or whatever the issue might be — it was too easy for me to try to “help” by offering a solution.
These days, I empathize instead. I have a better understanding of human frailty. I honor those who, despite their struggles, still make the decision to get up each day and face their lives.
When you look at me, you don’t see the entire picture. But when I look at you, I don’t either. Neither of us knows the struggles the other faces. That’s OK. We may not see clearly but we can see with compassion.
The Bible tells us to not judge others lest we be judged. Before I got cancer, this was something I believed intellectually, but didn’t always put into practice. As a survivor, I am much more able to live out this aspect of my faith. That is a wonderful gift and I’m truly grateful for it.
This post was previously published on Noteworthy – The Journal Blog and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Shefali O’Hara