I had written in January—in this post—that I was struggling with words. But, as it turns out, my lack of words was the least of my struggles. As I approached the end of my cancer treatment, I felt an inexplicable sense of loss.
Instead of the relief and euphoria I assumed would come on the heels of treatment, I felt numb, untethered, cast adrift. It was the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought I would experience a huge rush of adrenaline and excitement. Instead, I crashed.
Instead of tears of joy, I simply cried.
No one was more perplexed than I at this surprising turn of events. As I tried to rationalize and explain my unbidden tears, the best I could do was liken it to PTSD.
Clearly, it wasn’t—I don’t want to minimize the severity of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—but my body had undergone something traumatic and destructive on a cellular level even if my outside looked relatively the same.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD always come after the trauma, sometimes months and even years after the event. There’s a reason for that.
I think when we go through hard things we are able to muster up the strength and courage to do what we have to do. When there’s no other choice, there’s no other choice. (If you want, you can read some of my thoughts on bravery here.)
But here’s the thing: when we’re in that place of just putting our head down and working through whatever it is, we don’t realize what it takes out of us. We just do it. We endure.
When I finished my last treatment and the subsequent weeks of recovery, I was relieved and happy. I lifted my head, took a deep breath, and the full effect of what my body had been through settled on me. The truth was, I was pummelled; exhausted both physically and emotionally.
And I needed to grieve.
Rationally, finishing treatment was nothing to be sad about. But it came with some losses I hadn’t really considered before. Please know that I’ve had several sessions with a therapist since March to help me wade through the weeds on this. Sometimes we just need some outside perspective and wisdom to get to the heart of the matter.
Loss of comfort
I know this seems odd, because I basically spent six months being uncomfortable; physically, I was a mess: nausea, fatigue, hair loss, allergic reactions to medication, rashes, eczema, weight gain, and the list goes on.
But aside from the obvious physical side effects, I had actually created a whole safe little small life for myself. Over the course of a year or so prior to entering treatment, I stepped away from any and all of my previous commitments. At the time, I justified it to myself (and others) by saying that I would take the time to focus on my health: exercise, rest—whatever my body needed. But, in short, I settled in and made myself very comfortable.
Don’t get me wrong, that bit of self-care was important and I went into treatment feeling healthy and strong. And I’m convinced it helped me weather the chemo storm well.
But, in hindsight, I have some regrets about that decision. I allowed myself to become a little too comfortable in that small life. When I came to the end of my treatment, I knew that I could not remain in that safe little cocoon I had wrapped myself in.
I believe we weren’t created to be inward-focused for long. Self-care is important, but it can’t be everything. Ultimately, practicing self-care should leave us with enough overflow in our lives to care for and serve others. I know I need more in my life than the navel-gazing I have been doing for the past year and a bit.
And, while on the one hand I’m excited to move into “what’s next” in my life and begin planning for some sort of future again, I know it can’t happen without me saying good-bye to the comfort and safety of this place I’ve resided for the past while.
I feel like there’s a caterpillar—cocoon—butterfly analogy here…
Loss of youth
I know what you might be thinking here. I turned 51 this year. Clearly, I am no spring chicken. But let me tell you about one of the side effects of chemotherapy that not many women talk about. Menopause.
It’s a natural thing as women progress in age. At 50, I had no delusions that I was going to be spared, even though I was not there yet. But rather than gliding gracefully into those years, as I—maybe naively—thought would happen, I feel like I was tossed off the deep end and the door slammed firmly shut behind me. There was no transition. No gradual onset. No gentle adjustment period. One day I was “young” and the next day I was not.
Okay, that’s a little dramatic maybe. But I learned very quickly why older women seem to lose their filters and why they might come across as crabby. Two words: hot flashes.
I can tell you that my poor husband has borne the full brunt of this loss. I’m sure there were days when he would have liked nothing more than to duck and take cover. Bless his heart.
Of course, I know many women who’ve gone on to live full and productive lives beyond menopause (sarcasm implicit) and so I’m confident this one will work itself out. It was just such a jarring change along with everything else going on in my body, that it threw me for a bit of a loop.
Loss of identity
“Living with cancer” has become intrinsic to my identity. For close to five years, this has been something that has wormed its way into my being. I’ve thought about it, I’ve prayed about it, I’ve talked about it, I’ve written about it, I’ve made changes to my life—both big and small—because of it.
And while I’ve always maintained that my cancer doesn’t define me, it isn’t who I am—I am so much more than a patient with a condition—it has indeed taken up a lot of mental space and energy. In fact, since September “living with cancer and in treatment” has loomed large. My cancer has unintentionally become something much bigger and more significant than I ever wanted it to be.
So, now what?
No longer in treatment.
Perhaps cancer-free? (No declarations from my doctor for awhile yet.)
Where does that leave me? What and who am I without the disease that has defined me these past five years?
Instead of looking forward with hope and a renewed zest for life, I have been overcome with regret for many of the choices I’ve made over the past five years. Little, seemingly insignificant decisions that culminated in an inability to recognize myself. And self-loathing has followed on the heels of those regrets.
Now, I want to be clear in saying I don’t regret EVERY decision I’ve made this last while–many of them have been good and sound–but I have a tendency to be hard on myself, so these can often get lost amid the shouting of my inner critic. She’s so very loud.
I also know it’s futile to spend emotional energy on regrets. We can’t go back and change any of the decisions we’ve made; the past is the past. But a lot of the things we think and feel in the moment aren’t rational and it takes time for my “grown-up voice” to rise to above the din.
Moving forward though, learning from the regrets and mistakes, well that’s something entirely within my control. And so, while I can’t change any of the actions or decisions that helped get me to this place where I now seem to be inexplicably stuck, I can certainly acknowledge my losses and start working myself out of it.
But it will take some time. And deliberate effort. And lots of grace.
Grace upon Grace
I wrote this in one of my last blog posts,
“God’s been unravelling me lately… But, one of the beautiful things I know about God is that whatever He allows to unravel He will re-make. “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.” ~Isaiah 43:19
When I wrote those words back in January, I had no idea how much more unraveling was still to come.
In Trina Paulus’ book, Hope for the Flowers, two caterpillars—Stripe and Yellow—are discussing becoming butterflies. Yellow asks, “If I decide to become a butterfly, what do I do?” “Watch me,” came the reply. “I’m making a cocoon. It looks like I’m hiding, I know but a cocoon is no escape. It’s an in-between house where the change is taking place… During the change it will seem… that nothing is happening, but the butterfly is already becoming. It just takes time.”
Didn’t I say there was a butterfly analogy lurking somewhere in this?
And so now, I find myself in this in-between place. Waiting. Somedays it looks as though nothing is happening. But, ever the optimist, I know that transformation is occurring. I won’t be in this place forever.
In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd writes, “Transformations come only as we go the long way round, only as we’re willing to walk a different, longer, more arduous, more inward, more prayerful route. When you wait, you’re deliberately choosing to take the long way… God is offering an invitation. A call to waiting. A call to the mysteries of the cocoon. …in the spiritual life, the long way round is the saving way… it’s deep and difficult…but we have to be patient. We have to let go and tap our creative stillness. Most of all, we have to trust that our scarred hearts really do have wings.”
Even as the unraveling continues, I remain hopeful. There are threads of grace that are being untangled around me and woven into something new.
“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” ~John 1:16
Ever-grateful for grace,