For months I powered through a tunnel of darkness, only to step out into a deeper shade of gray. I was stunned and speechless, feeling deceived by my own misconception of what the end would be. Without pause, I had raced as fast as I could with my focus straight ahead at the tunnel’s exit. I believed the outside of the tunnel would be filled with joy, sunlight, and restoration, but instead it was drab, unsettling, and the heaviness weighted down my every muscle. The darkness caused fatigue, and yet, ironically, sleeplessness. Eventually, even food lost its lure as my body betrayed my mind. I thought I’d feel relieved emerging from the intensive treatment. I didn’t.
My journey through the tunnel began with a mastectomy followed by eighteen weeks of chemotherapy which included infusions of four drugs every three weeks. I kept looking ahead, sure that once I maneuvered the next phase of sixteen daily radiation treatments I would finally exit into sunnier days. After all, the radiation wouldn’t cause nausea or diarrhea like chemotherapy. Neuropathy would no longer be an issue, so my daughter wouldn’t have to continue escorting me downstairs each night like Emily Blunt in Young Victoria. However, radiation, like chemotherapy, presented its own set of unique challenges, which caught me by surprise.
In half of my radiation treatments I wore a metal mesh to intensify beams to area of my armpit which once contained a lymph node of cancer cells. Before radiation, I was first “marked,” meaning areas of my breast, underarm, and upper neck were aligned with x-rays, and the skin itself was tattooed with a Sharpie and stickers so technicians knew exactly where the radioactive beams should go. My radiologist was transparent in warning me that radiation would age a segment of the ribcage and that it would always show up on x-rays. More importantly, because the section would be aged by radiation, any fall or car accident could potentially cause the ribs to break, and she wanted me to be cognizant of it in the future.
The radiation procedure itself was painless but unnerving; breast cancer patients are naked from the waist up, their arms placed in stirrups so that they don’t move. They face the equipment for fifteen minutes, which can seem like a lifetime. It is an extremely vulnerable situation, and I cannot imagine how a victim of sexual assault endures the procedure. I found myself alone with my own thoughts and fears, once breaking down into an ugly cry during radiation. Thankfully, my radiation nurses comforted me throughout the process.
Physical effects were gradual and cumulative so by the end my skin was blistered and raw under the arm and on the ribcage. The week after treatment ended my skin was at its worst – dark red and blistered to a 3rd degree burn. Sleeping and touching the right side of the body was extremely painful, but as the radiologist explained, I had received a lifetime of sun damage to kill any cancer cells that might have remained after surgery. Radiation is about light beams, and I marveled at the power of light in healing the body.
Like chemotherapy, some of radiation’s side effects were not easily apparent. For instance, fatigue got worse and my daily strolls, which I found empowering, became infrequent. There was still a metal taste in my mouth and even water tasted bitter. Most alarming was that my labs showed my white blood cell count had dropped to 1.4 because my bone marrow had taken such a hard hit from chemo and radiation; the normal range is 4.8 – 10.8. I found cuts took longer to heal, and since I worried excessively about catching Coronavirus since there was not yet a vaccine, only leaving the house for doctor visits.
Although the physical consequences of cancer treatment can be brutal, the hardest challenge for me was fear. Regardless of what type of cancer, any time someone passed away from it, I felt as if I lost a teammate because cancer patients feel kinship to one another; I spent sleepless nights wondering if Kelly Preston had undergone traditional treatment like I had from the start, how Ruth Bader Ginsburg ever found the strength to battle cancer four times, and if I would develop a second cancer like Robin Roberts.
When I finished radiation and stepped out of my journey’s tunnel, my hair was starting to sprout fuzz and eyebrows were showing signs of return, so I didn’t understand why I could not shake the dark storm cloud of anxiety that filled me day and night. As a result, I couldn’t sleep and lost interest in food, causing me to lose weight when I needed to build strength. Mentally and physically, it felt like I had been running a marathon for several months; I was an exhausted, emotional mess and everything made me cry like I had just finished the conclusion of The Notebook. I struggled in silence for some time before finally talking to my oncologist who put my mind to ease by telling me that my feelings were normal due to all that my mind and body had endured. She explained there is no set time to mourn a cancer diagnosis and survivors all manage differently with some feeling my emotions at the onset of a diagnosis and others at the end of treatment. It felt like I had been treading water for a long time and couldn’t see land. My oncologist and I agreed upon adding medication to my regiment, and within weeks I felt calmer and more in control of my emotions. Appetite returned and my white blood cells slowly started to increase closer to the normal range. I learned there is no shame in asking for help when the darkness persists.
Once the heaviness of depression began to fade, I started looking for the Godwinks in everyday life. For instance, friends sent me messages that I was in their prayers, some coming at exact moments when I felt panic and fear. Colleagues humbled me by donating their shared leave when my paid leave ran out. Once I was in the grocery and someone approached me because he had read my blog and felt an urgency from his sister who had passed from cancer to tell me that I was in his prayers. Another time I received a card from a stranger who had lost her child and wanted me to know she understood grief was praying for me. I have been blessed with so many prayer warriors who have taught me the joy praying for others, and it is my honor any time I am asked to pray for someone.
Until summer, I continue with immunotherapy infusions of Herceptin and Perjeta every three weeks to help prevent reoccurrence, and my oncologist monitors my heart since the infusions can cause heart problems. I will also continue to take a daily oral aromatase inhibitor for the next five to ten years as another layer of precaution. With the worst in my rearview mirror, I look forward to reconstructive surgery early this fall. Between cancer and a pandemic 2020 felt like a year of darkness. When I think of the alternate ending to my life story had I postponed my annual mammogram due to COVID fears last May, it overwhelms me, and I know I am blessed to be here.