By Betsy Hnath
It’s been four years since my diagnosis with stage II breast cancer: One and a half of them I spent in treatment, the other two and a half I spent dealing with the aftermath.
As time passes, and my emotional ship sails in relative equilibrium for longer stretches, I try to spend more time on the deck, taking in my surroundings, living in the moment. Then cancer sends up a flare in the distance and my attention is shifted: A random pain, tightness in my chest, or some extra fatigue. These bright, red burning lights remind me it is always there, hovering, perhaps waiting to attack again.
Sometimes cancer is a cannon, launching its missile close enough to graze my bow, as it has recently. When I hear that close friends, young friends, healthy friends have been diagnosed, I begin to sway. I know they will soon begin building their own ship and join the growing fleet that surrounds me of loving, faithful, undeserving patients. I mourn for their loss of the “old normal.” I know what it does to you.
I have to sit back and powerlessly watch during the excruciating 2-3 weeks it takes to learn everything they can about their enemy through scans and tests, and formulate their plan of attack. Nothing can be done to slow down or speed up that time.
I can tell them what I know from experience: that this is the worst of it, this first part. Shifting uncomfortably in scratchy, paper gowns as you wait in sterile, silent exam rooms; the inability to get the smell of hand sanitizer out of your nose; shaking hands with one doctor after another as he or she flips through your life, which has been neatly assembled onto a clipboard. How you can go from feeling normal to completely despondent, sometimes within the same ten-minute span. That ache, burning in your chest, as you inhale yesterday’s Suave when you bend down and kiss your children’s heads as they sleep, wondering how many more nights you’ll get to do it. I can prepare them and reassure them, but in the end they will sail through it on their own just as we all do.
Cancer’s most effective attacks come with news of a recurrence. So far it hasn’t been mine, but the disease has resurfaced in people I love. It rips a hole in my side, allowing the visions and fears of my own eventual diagnosis to flood in. This is when family, friends and sometimes professionals come help bail out panic by the bucketful as I struggle to stay afloat. Even though objectively every person’s experience is unique, if you’ve had cancer, it’s impossible not to see yourself in both the successes and disappointments of your peers who have it, too.
Sometimes I wish I could distance myself from my armada, because when their seas are rough, I can’t help but toss along with them. I want to pull away and go back to my views of the shore as I sail on my own, calm water. But there is an unspoken family in cancer and there is strength in numbers. By sharing information, support and love, we break through the chop, making it easier for those behind us; but that doesn’t make it easy.
By remaining a resource, it’s impossible to rid myself of my memories. I can’t stop my heart from breaking at news of a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer, either newly or with a recurrence. I also can’t help but scrape wounds that had only just started to heal in me after my own experience. My BRCA2 didn’t only damage my genes. It attacked my soul.
Most who have crossed the ocean of cancer often end up with some PTSD, and I am not immune. A smell, taste or even a certain item of clothing, can trigger a memory of a dark day, sending me into a spiral of depressive thoughts. Seeing a stranger in a bandana, with penciled-in eyebrows still both repels me and makes me long to talk to them. It’s hard to look and not be thrown back into days filled with chairs in a row, IV poles next to each, a rainbow of poisons connected to chests and elbows, all in an attempt to fend off death. Still, I want to approach these individuals, to tell them if I can do it, so can they. Most often I settle for an “I’m in the club, too” nod and smile.
Maybe by year five I’ll learn how to cruise my cancer seas more effectively. To better balance my desire and responsibility to help others with my own need to get some emotional distance from the experience. I need both to feel whole, but the equation of how they best fit together in my life has yet to present itself.
Until then I will sail along, offering what I can, taking in vistas, and learning as I go.
Betsy Hnath is a freelance writer and editor, living in the Washington, D.C. area. Though she has written about many people and topics, her recent work has focused mainly on her experiences as a cancer patient and cancer caregiver. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Aging Care and Huffington Post among other publications.