Breakfast, Body Image, & Rage
I know the comment that is coming before it even begins to emerge from his lips.
“That looks . . . healthy”
I am standing in the office kitchen making my breakfast – gluten-free oats with chia seeds, flax seeds, organic berries, nut butter, and almond milk if you are curious what it is that caused such a stir. I’ve been getting these comments from everywhere for months and I still haven’t figured out the correct response. “Thank you” seems insufficient and curt. Admitting I’d rather be looking forward to Chik-Fil-A than brown rice and kale for lunch somehow too brazen. So instead I just give a half-hearted nod and wish that everyone could just forget that I ever got cancer again.
* * *
I am hung up on that word today. Some days everything is fine and I am living in the land of gratitude and remission and other days – days like today – I get punched in the gut by the gravity of the fact that this was my second time through cancer and I’m not even forty and I find myself awash in anger and rage all over again.
At the people who couldn’t sit in the space with me.
At the way it changed so many of the relationships with the people who could.
At the way I am still tired deep in the marrow of my bones after what should really be just an ordinary day.
At the stiffness in my joints and the pain in my muscles that still persists even five months out from chemotherapy.
At the fact that I can’t just go eat some ice cream and call it a day. At the fact that the M&Ms sitting on the counter in the office kitchen seem to scream at me “WE WILL GIVE YOU CANCER!” every time I just open the door to get some tea. At the fact that I am scared of my soap, of the tap water, of the air in enclosed spaces.
At the way I still don’t entirely understand what this all was for.
* * *
I feel strange about posts like this. I don’t want anyone reading this who may know me out there in the real world to believe I am telling them they are doing something wrong. None of us know exactly how this is supposed to go. So I don’t fault you if you are the one who asked me about the oatmeal today.
I don’t want anyone to think that the magnitude of my healing has escaped me. I am grateful. I fall asleep each night uttering prayers of thanksgiving in a nearly unintelligible stream. I am not ungrateful.
But the story would be incomplete without this part – the aftermath. The part that comes after everyone else assumes things are all better and you can’t seem to convey exactly how trashed your body still feels from chemotherapy and all that poison seeping in for so long. How it feels to know you are still the cancer patient to the people who see you every day – something you never were just a few short months ago. How memories of hurts and experiences and emotions come sweeping back in when you’re just minding your business and trying to read your scripture for the day and instead all you can do is text your best friend – the one you are still so angry with today because he failed to answer the telephone for months - that you just don’t want to feel this angry any more.
So we need to talk about those things here. Even though its not the pretty part.
* * *
Last night two friends came over. I had a hat on. I always have a hat on. Because I still hate how I look. And they wanted to see my hair and I showed them and then I had to hear yet again how amazing I look with short hair and I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I actually measure my hair each week, trying in vain to anticipate when I might finally feel feminine again.
That’s another one I get all the time these days. The massive interest in my hair.
I am headed to Costa Rica next week and have no idea how I will manage to put my scarred and beaten body into a bathing suit. Its not just the fact that I was literally fileted open and have the extraordinary scar to prove it, but the scar from my first port is still black as night and I am acutely aware of the fact that my abs look like I should have recently given birth, when all that really happened was that I lost the ability to ever actually do that.
My stomach and I have issues these days. I am keenly aware of its state at all times. Watching like a hawk for any sign that the ascites may be back. I know the 4 pounds I have gained back is needed, but in my mind it is a sign of something wrong. I am not heeding my therapist’s request that I stay off the scale very well.
“You look so healthy!” they all tell me. I can’t see it. I’m too busy watching for signs that the monster is back.
* * *
I know my disease is gone. So lets just say that again.
But on days like today, the word “recurrence” runs in a nonstop loop through my head as I try to figure out what I would possibly do if that actually happened. I would need to sell my house to even begin to afford another six months of treatment. And I am still so exhausted that I don’t know that I have the ability to endure another go at treatments on my own. Just the thought of it seems impossible.
It is in those thoughts – the attempts to plan for a possible recurrence – that the gravity of what 2016 was hits the hardest. When I realize just how much Hope and I went through. How much dark, how much alone, how many tears, how many sleepless nights. It was too much for any one human and any one puppy. I still wonder why it was God’s plan that I go through this alone. Even though when I’m honest I know exactly why.
* * *
“I mean – you were on a path before this.”
“Yeah, I was. But I really could have done without this detour.”
The car falls silent and I turn to gaze out the window. We were driving east through moderate traffic, our first real chance to catch up since last March. We used to travel all the time together, but now I am slow and often have to stay behind because I just can’t quite keep up.
His point was a valid one. Its not like I just found God during this cancer experience. He was making it clear that He was pulling me in tight for a good two years before this all began. So it wasn’t new. And probably not entirely shocking. But its still painful.
I would have to wager that it always will be.
Because even after the bruising is gone and the scars have faded, once my energy has returned and I have pigtails again, the memories of that time will still be there. I will still recall from time to time what it felt like in those deep, dark hours on the couch. I will always remember lying in those dim rooms as a group of radiologists plunged enormous needles into my abdomen, standing in the kitchen sticking myself with needles twice a day, lying awake in the deepest hours of the night panicking about what the future holds. I will never forget what it felt like to know it was just me and God and the enemy and it was up to me to shore up the strength to follow the road God had laid out for me instead of turning down the easier past the other guy was coaxing me toward.
I don’t think you ever forget something like that.
I don’t think I’d ever really want to.