I’m sitting here on my laptop, looking through a folder of old photos from my phone and taking a walk down memory lane. There is nothing like a photograph to take you right back to a moment, and to remind you of how you felt in that moment. I know a lot of people don’t take photos of themselves during cancer, which is understandable. For the most part, you usually look like crap. And you don’t necessarily want to document the worst, scariest, saddest part of your life. In my case, I actually took quite a few photos. In fact, I even treated myself to a nice camera early on in my diagnosis, which I used for most of the photos that appeared on this blog.
I also snapped several photos on my crappy Blackberry (hence the mostly poor quality), which I tend to never look at, except for moments like now where I happen upon that folder. Let’s have a look, shall we?
These photos now cause a huge range of emotions when I look at them: sad, shocked, angry, proud, amazed. I’m glad I have so many photos, if anything, to remind me how much has changed in such a short amount of time. And how much, for better or worse, could change again. How it’s all out of my control and how I need to be grateful that, for the time being, my current photos consist of me smiling, having fun, feeling healthy, and with a full head of hair.
Last week I think I hit a new low of sheer misery. The fatigue that comes with chemotherapy is truly cumulative, and with each new treatment, it is growing increasingly difficult to do any of the things I once enjoyed. Such as taking a walk. Or lifting my laptop. Or lifting my head. The tiniest things we all take for granted have become incomprehensible to me. Memories of the past. Of a life I once lived, where my body would do whatever I asked of it, with ease. I feel as though I have been thrust into old age almost overnight. My bones ache when I try to move them. My body cries out for rest after walking up a few stairs. I wake up at night with hot flashes, my cheeks burning, thanks to the menopausal effects of chemo. Creases are starting to form on the outer corners of my eyes. My stomach and face are bloated constantly from all the drugs, making me look like I am five months pregnant. I can’t follow a basic conversation without losing focus, or feeling like I need to shut my eyes. I am an old lady. At the ripe age of 28.
It has been difficult for me to look in the mirror lately. I don’t like what I see. A bald, puffy face, with red patches all over my cheeks and glossy eyes. Is that really me? It is hard to feel healthy or strong, when the image reflected back at me is anything but. Lately I am starting to feel as though I will never get my old self back. I can’t imagine having life in my face again. Or having hair. It seems like appearance should be relatively low on the list of things to feel bad about, when you’re dealing with all the crap that comes with a cancer diagnosis. But it is proving to be one of the biggest challenges for me. Looks aren’t everything, but when you’re already feeling just about as low as a human can feel, it really does add insult to injury.
It is hard for me to look at pre-cancer photos of myself now. I feel very disconnected from the girl I see. She’s pretty, and healthy, and happy, and completely unaware of what is about to happen to her. It’s as though I am looking at someone else’s life, even though I know she is me. Did I really do all those things at one time? Did I really look like that? Did I really have hair? I want to go back into those photos, just for one minute, just to remember what it’s like, to be happy and pretty. To soak up those moments. Because they are starting to slip away from me.
I hope that eventually I can start feeling better about what I see in the mirror. View my reflection as an image of a brave warrior, rather than one of a sick cancer patient whose body has been continuously cut, poked, and poisoned. I don’t want to be that girl who cries when she looks in the mirror. I have never been that girl. I refuse to let her win. And anyone who knows me knows I always get my way.
Not long after my most recent chemo treatment, I felt pretty awful. I, again, wanted to cut off my legs and arms. I took many, many drugs (I have a nice little pharmacy by my bedside these days) in an attempt to stop the pain and nausea spreading through my body. I felt so weak that I needed my husband to help keep me balanced while I walked from my couch to my bathroom. I nearly passed out while trying to get groceries with my mother. I thought, once again, this will never end. I will feel like this forever. I will never go outside again or see my friends again. I will never want to touch food again. I will never stop crying. Life stinks.
And then it passed. And I saw my friends. And I was laughing and running around (well, not running, but walking at a normal, non-zombie-like pace). And I was eating enough to feed a 300-pound man (which, as many people know, is how I eat under normal circumstances). I began to make plans and do things that didn’t involve lying in my bed all day with the shutters closed. I put on pants that didn’t have the word “sweat” in their name. I went out to a restaurant. I planned a spontaneous getaway with my husband to my grandfather’s place up in the country, in an attempt to escape from my surroundings for a bit and pretend that I even have the option to go on any type of vacation right now, like everyone else.
Some people like to talk of the “gifts” that cancer has given them. New perspectives on life, love, family. Realizing what is truly important in this world. During these nice moments over the past week or so, I did feel very grateful. To be feeling good, and happy, and loved. Feeling the sun on my face or the warmth of the fireplace. Spending time with my husband away from distractions, and away from the hospital. When you know what it feels like to feel like you are at death’s door, you tend to appreciate the moments when you feel good and healthy a lot more than the average person might.
That being said, you will never catch me talking about cancer as a “gift”. Sure, there are quite literally gifts, like this package that arrived from my friend Lily today.
I love getting stuff in the mail. It is one of the few things that really excites me these days and I appreciate everything you kind people have sent me.
However, cancer itself – NOT a gift. And to be honest, I kind of want to smack people who refer to it as such. I read a comment on an article I was reading, where a woman talked about all the blessings cancer had given her, and said she wouldn’t change anything if she had the chance, because she had been given these “gifts” as a result of her cancer.
Barf. That’s what I say to that.
I appreciated everything in my life pre-cancer. I have an amazing husband, family, and group of friends. I knew what I wanted out of life. My priorities were straight. I didn’t need cancer to “show me the way” or teach me the value of life. Sure, I might have a deeper appreciation for many things now than a lot of people do. But I’d much prefer not to have cancer, and to have my regular level of appreciation be restored. I am 28 years old. I don’t want to feel that each day is a blessing, becausewho knows how many days I/we all have left. I want to have many days left. And I want to be able to take that for granted. I am 28.
Cancer is not a gift. It’s an ugly, humiliating, miserable, frightening disease. There are nice moments throughout and small silver linings here and there. But this is no blessing. And if I had the opportunity to change it all and go back to being a regular boring person whom none of you would ever care to read about, would I? Hell yes.
But since I can’t do that, I will continue through this bizarre cycle of feeling like death and then coming back to life yet again.
And, of course, I will continue to accept your gifts, in the mail. Gladly. Because if cancer has taught me anything, it’s that getting presents is awesome.