Last week, I had a nagging headache for most of the day. I felt a little tired, a little sluggish, and stressed about some things in my personal life. Ordinarily, this is no big deal. However, there is a seismic shift in perspective that takes place after a cancer diagnosis, in particular, a metastatic diagnosis. Each little ache, pain, and annoyance sends off alarm bells: What if my cancer has spread? What does this new pain mean? Will it go away on it’s own, or is it something I should pay attention to?
I was talking with another woman that week who had also recently been diagnosed. Her cancer was caught earlier stage than mine, but I was surprised at how much our mindsets mirrored each other. She kept ruminating about whether this diagnosis was going to kill her. I knew those thoughts well – I remembered vividly lying on the procedure table during my breast biopsy, sobbing quietly to myself, then only a couple hours into my diagnostic process. I was terrified that I was going to die from this cancer. I can’t say that my fears have subsided, but my understanding of them has shifted.
One of the greatest struggles in a life with cancer is the constant “what if,” the constant awareness that, at any moment, the situation might change in a way that will require you to pivot, change the understanding of your worldview, and to maintain a lifetime of tremendous flexibility to re-focus and adapt to a new normal that you can’t predict. In a way, this is life in general, but for those living with cancer, it lives with you in a more visceral way.
I was afraid I was going to die. I hear this echoed often, by women of all ages and stages in their breast cancer diagnoses and treatments. We who live with cancer live with the understanding that the other shoe can drop at any time. In some ways, my bone mets have given me freedom: a big shoe has already dropped for me, although I am still reticent to type that, as it feels like tempting fate. There are plenty of other shoes to drop, that is certain. To some degree, my body no longer feels like my own. Every twinge, ache, and bump reminds me of the what-ifs that I try to keep at bay. In some ways, I feel like I live in a forgotten battlefield, knowing that a land mine could erupt at any time, without warning. I don’t have an answer for this fear (although certain pharmaceuticals do a decent job managing them, if only temporarily), but naming it, giving it space in the room, allows me to move beyond it, even if it never fully goes away.
Finding a new normal that accepts my illness into the routine is tremendously difficult, because that normal is one that both allows me to find myself in a place of beauty and joy in my life as well as acknowledge and accept the difficult parts. It’s easy to transition into the mindset of “live all the life!” when you think that your life could be cut short. And it’s easy to despair, and feel like it’s all meaningless anyway. What’s challenging is to find a space in your life and let it walk beside you, making peace with the uncertainty. And truly, there is space for uncertainty, and sadness in the joy: in the ecstatic giggle from my toddler when he plays outside after a long, cold winter, the quiet conversations with my husband well past our bedtime, the warm purr of our cats. Our little family cooking together in the evenings, and then sitting around the dinner table together. In that space, I have found so much beauty and joy in the small ebbs and flows of every day existence. I am slowly finding my way.