Coming to the end of my second month of chemo, I’m feeling quite aware of the tired toll it’s taking on my body. There are lots of weird little bits of myself that I don’t usually have to think about. My gums, really? And throat? The circulation in my right arm? A cut that won’t heal. Skin like crepe paper. The jittery queasiness. Kidney health and blood counts. I’m going to quit right there, but take my word, you don’t want to focus on your many little bits so much. I often don’t feel like the normal occupant of my body.
And I find myself examining the long-held belief in my optimism and can-do character, my ability to take what life throws with some level of equanimity. Because cancer doesn’t just take a physical toll, it’s a mental matter too. After two months of chemo, I still have 12 more weeks to look forward to on the next drug, Taxol, not to mention surgery and all the rest to follow. So I try not to focus nearly that far out. Asking questions only about what happens in the next few days, or a week. What needs taking care of to rise to today?
Cancer arrived on the heels of a very freeing period, when I sailed into retirement getting to do so many things I wanted to do. In “retirement,” I declared myself an artist, ready to grow in dynamic ways as older age encroached. But while acknowledging my good health part of my good fortune, insisting I didn’t take it for granted, I’ve always known this was partly an intellectual position, that it would be harder if (when) my health declined. It doesn’t matter what you say, until you’re sick you don’t really know how you’ll manage it. Until you go looking for an oncologist and a surgeon. Until you’re taking poison to kill your runaway cells. Until you’re queasy for days, and the weight starts dropping, and you’re dozing sitting up to minimize a headache.
Swallowing a scratchy pill can take a full minute because your throat has gotten smaller. Standing up makes you light headed. You have pain in places that shouldn’t have anything to do with breast cancer, should they? Nothing heals like it should—a little scrape takes weeks to disappear. You back off the exercises that exacerbate some little side effect. You forego food that’s not bland as cream—don’t even think about a tangy anything, a spicy fish taco, a bbq rib, a dram of scotch.
It all adds up.
I’ve noticed myself getting a little cautious since learning I have a clot sitting under my collarbone. Now I hesitate to strain torso and arm muscles. Now that I take blood thinners, I’m vigilant when using a sharp knife. I’ve slowed down, trying to avoid the bruises I usually collect as I bang around the house.
This must be how it happens, how we morph into slow-moving old folks, looking where we put each step. A bit of caution seeps into our movements, a heightened awareness of how we move through our surroundings. I’ve been writing about aging over the last year, nurturing the illusion that you can judge old age while in excellent health. Even knowing my viewpoint was uninformed, I prattled away about staying active and plunging into making art.
Still, I feel bad about whining.
I can’t help but come back around to how fortunate I’ve been. I’ve avoided the worst of the nausea typical of the chemo drugs I’ve been getting: the AC of the AC-T protocol. I’m getting a lot of help, love and support from my family, first of all, and many friends. I have outstanding doctors and nurses at my beck and call, helping with whatever crops up. I’m getting advice on maintaining my energy and stamina. I get to eat ice cream.
So I try to stay focused on the things that give my life meaning. Like staying engaged in art, my own and others’. I’m not working much on any of the bigger pieces I was conceptualizing when I was diagnosed. But I’m focused on several smaller pieces that spring from the same well. I close my eyes on the rowing machine and think through how to construct the work I’m piecing together. I sketch. Or I sit down and write like this when it feels like there’s something to say. When I need to take a break I’ve finally found time for podcasts, listening to some amazing thinkers and writers with food for thought branching in new directions. And, it almost goes without saying, Talenti Sea Salt Caramel.
Only occasionally do I let myself dream about where we’ll travel next, at some point well down the road, when I expect to look at this year in the rear-view mirror. That kind of dreaming is important too, remembering that this cancer is very treatable, and I know many survivors of 20 years and more. It may turn out to be the death sentence that I’ve sporadically wondered about, but chances are better than good that’s a long way out.