Cancer is one of those conditions where we are either willfully ignorant or woefully naive about all it entails. I’m not sure which was more prevalent for me. Probably equal parts of both. Before diagnosis, I knew people who had surgery and were sent home with a clean bill of health. I knew a few people whose cancer returned after the “magic” five-year mark who were treated again and went on to live long enough to consider them to have had a “fulfilling” life. I knew others who were treated for several years until they could endure the chemo no longer and died a few months after stopping treatment. There are a few where I’d heard they were diagnosed and died shortly afterward.
For those who I’ve watched go on this journey, once diagnosed myself, I learned there’s so much they didn’t tell me. Now I wish they had. Maybe things were left unsaid because they didn’t want to burden or scare me. Or maybe it was too hard for them to talk about. Or maybe there was so much that was just hard to comprehend. I don’t know.
I thought I was going to be able to work through chemo, that it would be like having a nasty cold or the flu. You know, where you stay home, drink tea, take your antibiotics and sleep a lot. I thought I’d still be able to function more or less like I did before. Chemo doesn’t work that way. It steals every iota of energy you have. It destroys your appetite. Makes food taste like hell. And then… you discover that it kills your ability to think, to focus, to remember things. Sometimes it makes it hard to sleep. Sometimes that’s all you want to do.
I thought oncology appointments would be like any other doctor’s appointments – show up a few minutes early, see the doctor, maybe have some lab work done, and go back home 30-60 minutes later and not need to be back until my annual check-up or I got sick in between. Nope. Oncology appointments don’t work that way, either. Yes, the lab work gets done and you see the doctor, but I had no clue about the time in the chemo chair, and that time had no real limit. I had no idea that there would be many MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, additional mammograms and ultrasounds. Or that there would be additional follow-up appointments with cardiology, audiology, neurology, neuro-psychologists, speech therapists, the onco-plastic surgeon, the anesthesiologists, the radiation oncologists, the GP, ophthalmologists, optometrists, social workers, palliative care doctors, and extra trips to the dentist for fluoride treatments so that chemo doesn’t destroy your teeth along with your heart, your memory, your hearing and your ability to feel your fingers and toes or feel them without pain. Some of these appointments are weekly. Some monthly. Others quarterly. There are pre-chemo appointments. Pre and post-surgical appointments. The list feels endless.
On days that I’m feeling lucky, I can consolidate many of these appointments into a day’s venture to the hospital. Sometimes I squeeze the lab visit in during a commute to the office. The dentist or optometrist’s visit into a lunch hour. It’s not an easy dance to achieve any kind of balance. Well, that and the thought of achieving any kind of real balance is an outright lie. I tell myself that I’m going to say, switch the sheets on my bed tomorrow. So I get up in the morning, take the dirty sheets off the bed, get a shower, brush my teeth, put on a clean mattress pad, and now I need a nap.