This article was originally published on BetterAfter50.com.
"You can make an appointment to see us in six months."
Those words, from my oncologist's PA last week, were the sweetest words I have heard in a very long time. For while I still have three weeks to go with my daily radiation treatment, I seem to be done for a while with at least one doctor -- the oncologist. And that one little boost -- that little bit of progress, made a huge difference. There will be a time, I can see now, in the not-so-distant future, when a major part of my life will not be going to doctor's appointments.
This light at the end of the tunnel has allowed me to have a bit of perspective. If my friend came to me today, instead of two weeks ago, and asked me if I had any advice for her newly diagnosed friend, I think I would have had a better answer than the two words I was able to come up with: "Medical marijuana." That's a good answer, but maybe not quite so complete.
I am writing this for you, friend of a friend, though I don't know your name.
Here are eight things I think you should know about being a breast cancer patient, that you won't necessarily hear from your doctors.
- Be prepared for a very long haul, and be prepared to learn patience. When I was first diagnosed, I thought I would have surgery at the end of October. I was sure I'd be gliding across the cross-country ski trails by December. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am, it would be over, boob gone, life goes on. What I didn't know then was that I would have chemo, then radiation. It is now Spring, I am not even done with treatments yet, and I was certainly not expecting to still feel shitty. When asked, my radiologist said that I should not expect to feel like myself for six months to a year AFTER radiation. My oncologist refined that a bit, and said I'd be 85 percent back within a month or two after radiation ... it's just the last 15 percent that takes a while. In any case, it's a long haul. A very, very long haul.
- You will have to learn to live with uncertainty about your cancer, probably forever. The spot could be cancer, but may not be. The spot is cancer, but we need to find out what the receptors are. We know the receptors, but not the oncotype score. We need even more time to discuss treatment options: Lumpectomy? Mastectomy? Chemotherapy? Radiation? What is best? Will it work? Even when all the treatments are over, there is no "test" to see whether you are cured. And that may be just about the suckiest suck of all.
- You may get more depressed when you finish chemo than when you are going through it. A friend had warned me about this, and I didn't believe him. But it's true. Your chemo is over and you feel you should be getting back to your life. But you are still bald, you still feel shitty sometimes, you still are facing five weeks of radiation, and your eyelashes and eyebrows are just beginning to fall out when you were pretty sure they were spared. WTF?
- Continually remind yourself that you are a mere mortal. We women like to think we are Superwomen. We are better, stronger, more mentally prepared for the shit that assaults us. We can take this on, and kick it in the ass. Naps? Naps are for wimps. This type of thinking hurt me, because when I experienced the usual side effects from chemo, I felt mentally and physically weak, deficient, and powerless. What do you mean these are typical side effects? That is for mere mortals!
- People will surprise you, you will learn what true kindness means, and hopefully you will become a better person in the future. A woman from my exercise club brought me in a beanie hat lined with turtle fur because her sister had breast cancer and told her that this kind of hat was the most comfortable when she lost her hair. I had to ask her name when she gave it to me, and this beautiful act of kindness changed me. Women I don't know very well check up on me if they haven't seen me in a while. Women smile at me at exercise class, or tell me I'm an inspiration when I go bald, instead of averting their eyes so they don't have to make eye contact. I rely on, and want to spend time with people who are simply kind, who make me laugh, who show their own vulnerabilities, who bring out my best qualities. All others, especially the "know it alls" can go fuck themselves. And I don't feel an iota guilty about feeling that way.
- Medical Marijuana. Definitely your friend, once you figure out the dosing. You can read about it here. Your oncologist will probably not suggest medical marijuana, and that is a shame. One added benefit with this medicine is that you can have really interesting discussions for hours on end, like whether birds have fun when they fly. Why else would they hang out on cliffs? But have you ever considered if birds ever wondered if people had fun when they walked? Who cares if you feel shitty when your brain is so sharp it can have brilliant conversations like that? In addition to the physical relief, if laughter is your best medicine, marijuana should be by your bedside table.
- Push Yourself to Exercise. Not the second day after chemo, duh ... but as soon as you can, get moving. Not one single thing helped me more than exercising (link). It made me feel STRONG. POWERFUL. ENERGETIC. Call me G.I Jane, ladies, I love it. Endorphins are for real.
- This too, shall pass. This is a great mantra. This too, shall pass. This too, shall pass. This too, shall pass.