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September 2, 2010

Im Back At Least Most of The Way

Patricia A. Kelly

I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room when I checked my phone and found my editor's message, "When can I expect your column?" I jumped up from my chair and headed upstairs to the guest computer room at the University of Maryland. Thank goodness I was very early, as I had another, earlier appointment at another Baltimore hospital today.


Last spring, as regular readers will remember, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was early, Stage I, Grade I, no thanks to me, as I had accidentally put off my mammogram for several years. For someone who has had a cancer diagnosis, I feel extremely lucky. I had two surgeries, the second a revision of the first, a one-week course of radiation therapy, and am now taking a drug that should reduce the already small risk of recurrence.


I am healing, feeling well, and have been able to return to work. Much of the summer passed in doctors' offices, labs, body at times distorted under weird, ominous machines, needles here, incisions there, and maybe $60,000 worth of health care interventions altogether.


It's been interesting, to say the least. There was the initial quiet, vulnerable, pink pajama stage. There was the pretty successful effort to improve an already pretty good diet and lose some weight. There was the extra effort put into looking good. Someone said that was because my "feminine parts" were wounded. That may be, but there's a definite effort to be seen as a person rather than a patient by healthcare providers.


I never had much pain, even after surgeries. The techniques used now are really good, and, I can attest, result in decreased pain, deformity and scarring. I couldn't have asked for better, more compassionate care.


I look around every time I go to an appointment and find myself surrounded by very ill people. They are using walkers and crutches. Their hair is gone. They have intravenous ports in their chests for chemotherapy. Some are deeply radiation scarred. Others have very swollen arms after mastectomies. Every time I see them, I remind myself of how lucky I am. I feel sheepish going to rehabilitative therapy when my complaints are so minor. I can't think of a thing I should be complaining about, even as I ask the doctors questions.


I, as a nurse, have a lot of questions. At the first hospital, I had a nickname among the doctors because of a drug I took to prevent metastasis during surgery. I try not to be too much of a nuisance, but, being me, I have to research everything, and ask those questions. I have questioned every treatment, searched out the least damaging and disfiguring, questioned every medication, and revised my supplement, exercise and diet regime in response to this illness.


It's actually a good thing, I think. Being well informed gives one the edge in surviving and thriving in the face of illness. Just be prepared so you don't take an inordinate amount of staff time. They have a lot to do.


Most of my summer was spent in enforced rest, in spite of my feeling pretty well. Not overstressing the surgery site and getting enough rest were important. I alternated self-protective languor with cancer research. I had plenty of time to shop, cook and keep the house neat, although I couldn't vacuum or mow the lawn for awhile.


Now, I'm coming back. I completely get that life is what's happening, and what I'm creating now. I'm getting my home-organizing and coaching business off the ground, attempting to nurture relationships with family and friends, attempting to manage diet, exercise and home maintenance and improvement, and writing, of course.


There's something called "cancer brain," which is mental dullness after cancer. I used that excuse for forgetting things for much of the summer, and, in truth, I had a lot on my mind. I was distracted, and walking on a cloud of unreality much of the time. I got a lot of support, but, in the end, people expect their idea of reasonable behavior. "You're fine. Move on." If one wants more support, contacts with those who have had one's experience are probably best. I'm declaring, though, that I'm coming back, and ready to move on.


We're all, for sure, alive only in the present moment. The past is gone, and tomorrow is a hoped for dream. As an Indian poet once said: "Look well to this day, for it is the very life of life."


I'm free of many former concerns now. I care little what impression I make, or what people think of me, except that I want to avoid harm to others. Now that I'm past my own initial shock and self involvement, I think I have more empathy than before. I'm impatient with what I consider others' foolishness now, and find it very painful to have it placed on my plate. I'm more sensitive on one level, and find bad news – or painful news stories – very disturbing. I'm into lightness, and into practical solutions.


I'm still my old self, though, in the struggle to attain balance in life. And I'm still having more trouble remembering all the things I need and want to do. It may be a little worse, but it's certainly not new.


I'm filled with joy and gratitude, though, and excited about every day I have. I'm determined to get that balance thing down in this new life I've been granted.


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