The End of the Beginning

I’m almost done. This Friday, May 4, 2012, is my last chemo.

I don’t want to go, but I’m doing it anyway—because I don’t want to be a quitter. Because I don’t want to reproach myself later if the cancer comes back. Because I don’t have the courage right now to say, “Chemotherapy is a very messed-up way to deal with an illness. I choose a different approach.”

Sometimes I think half the things I do in life, I do to avoid reproaching myself later. And I don’t really trust my own intuition.

But, as I’m telling myself this week, I can trust myself after this last treatment.

And then we will PARTAAAY! Well, maybe in about three weeks to a month … before the surgery and radiation … or maybe afterward …

Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with good health and strength. I never needed a doctor other than my gynecologist until I was in my thirties and developed a repetitive motion injury. Now I’m pushing fifty and will be going to see doctors about triple-negative breast cancer for many years, if not the rest of my life, and yet I still don’t really believe I have it. All the disease ever did to me was enlarge my right armpit. The “cure” has afflicted me much worse than the disease.

I grew up with a mother who had rheumatoid arthritis that later destroyed her aorta and carotid arteries (in my opinion) and a father who was raised Christian Scientist and then converted to Catholicism. He had nothing against doctors; in fact, he convinced his mother to see one, I think about the congestive heart failure that killed her. He had polio when he was nine months old and always walked with a limp. He couldn’t jog, but he did learn to water-ski, and he rode his bike around our neighborhood. Once he even did a hundred, riding into the wind on the way out on some south Kansas City highway.

My mother didn’t talk much about her auto-immune illness, and I didn’t ask her about the effects I couldn’t see. Each of us wanted to be strong in our own ways, though I would ask her now, if I could. December 21 is the twentieth anniversary of her death. You learn, after the death of someone you love deeply, that grief doesn’t fade so much as shrink. In time, your life grows up around it but never completely obscures it.

Last night I thought of calling my father to tell him I have almost finished chemotherapy. But I told my siblings I wouldn’t talk to him about it anymore because it upsets him. He has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember certain things. The last time I mentioned it, he said he had forgotten, and I knew he felt bad about it.

Perhaps the next time I visit him, I will tell him about all the strange places I went because of cancer last winter and this spring and summer. I could say that the knowledge of it rose like a cold current in my body but very seldom spilled over. I could describe my rages and crying jags and the long drives to the infusion room.

But what was most unusual and wonderful, this year, was my acceptance of all the help I received. I remember a man long ago saying to me, after I paid him the exact amount he had lent me, “You don’t want to be obligated to anyone, do you?”

Well, no. When I was sixteen, I told my parents I was “completely independent.” Somehow they managed to restrain themselves from pointing out the food they provided and their car that I drove (and wrecked) and their house where I lived.

I have never felt so cared for in my life as I do now. Thank you.

But it’s weird to feel so much gratitude and so much cognitive dissonance at the same time.

Since November, I have been wondering about the messages we’re given after our diagnosis:

  • If you undergo these tests, we can tell you what’s wrong with you.
  • You can beat this with the right regimen. Hey, chemo sucks! But it will heal you.
  • You can beat this if you stay positive. Negativity and anger are toxic. Forgive!

Why is cancer so personal? Why is cancer all about what I do? What if I’m not a positive person? What if I’m a pessimist? All of us know pessimists. Clearly, not all of them have died.

The only solution, for me, is to be grateful for the health I’ve had and the help I received and to assist others by researching the politics of cancer treatment. There’s something creepy about Amgen paying for almost all the cost of my pricey Neulasta shot. There is also something creepy about pharmaceutical companies funding National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Why is so little attention paid to the causes of cancer, such as the toxins we absorb from conception on? Why work so hard to defeat something when it could be prevented?

Note: This post was inspired, in part, by Andi O’Conor’s tales of rebuilding her house, which burned down in the Four Mile Canyon Fire in 2010, especially “Life on the Edge.”