So I spent Thursday night through Friday morning in the E.R. with one of my sons. I was reluctant to go in, but his 106.2 degree fever and listlessness made it necessary. Though no one likes the emergency room, I have a developed a particular and overwhelming distaste for the whole hospital scene. And, sadly, this hospital overnight prompted me to realize how “jaded” I’ve become when it comes to the severity of symptoms and illnesses in general. Call it another side effect of being a cancer patient.
What I am afraid to admit out loud — and even really hesitant to share in this, my somewhat anonymous blog, is that I am beginning to wonder if cancer is interfering with my ability to be the kind of parent and person I want to be (and the kind of parent/person I used to be).
While procedures and blood draws and surgeries and medications and side effects and…(well, you get the picture) have become the norm for me, they are not the norm for everyone. And, fortunately, they are not the norm for my children. But I sometimes lose sight of the fact that everyone hasn’t spent what amounts to months (when you add up all of my time as an inpatient and outpatient since my cancer diagnosis in April 2010) in hospitals and cancer centers for surgeries, life-threatening infections, chemo, radiation, appointments, monoclonal antibody infusions, port blood draws, tests and procedures. Or that not everyone is waiting to find out if that lesion in their brain is malignant or if their liver function and lab values are so poor because the cancer may have metastasized to a vital organ.
I see my new perspective reflected in my everyday life. Someone will tell me about a symptom they’re experiencing or about their cold or papercut and I try to be supportive and kind. In my mind, though, I sometimes find myself wandering off to thoughts of how upsetting it might be for them if they had to have their breasts cut off and their lymph nodes dug out, if they faced each day with a constant headache, if they had to manage life with lymphedema, or if they lived their lives with unrelenting neuropathy (a leftover gem from the chemo) that gets so bad that it interferes with their ability to concentrate/type/hold a glass.
Or when I hear a pregnant woman my age talking about heartburn or swollen ankles and I am consoling on the outside, but inside I am thinking about how the large masses in my pelvis and ovaries prompted two painful surgeries and the loss of what remained of all but one of my female parts (in case you are wondering, it rhymes with bagina). And then I drift off to a mental picture of the baby girl I will never get to hold in my arms because:
a.) You need a uterus to have a baby — and ovaries and Fallopian tubes and a cervix lend something to the process, too. But all of these things filled my gynecologic oncologist’s specimen jars and were sent off to a lab and probably a garbage bin somewhere.
b.) Who would allow someone with my medical history to adopt a baby? As much as I would love to be here to raise a new little baby, let’s face it, I am clearly a flight risk.
I thought of a “c”.
c.) I know surrogacy has gained popularity. But that’s not even an option for me because my eggs were stolen. Okay, they weren’t stolen. But it feels like they were.
And I have that heartburn and those swollen ankles (and legs), too. Two years of chemo and Herceptin messed up my kidneys and made edema a big problem for me. And I have my dusty bottle of Nexium for my acid reflux disease, but I stopped taking it because I take so many pills that I’d rather look at those pretty purple capsules than ingest them.
The bottom line is, even though I want to feel sorry for you because you have a cold, inside I am dreaming of what it would be like if a runny nose and congestion were my biggest medical problems. Not so deep down I am wishing I could just take some NyQuil, hop into bed, and wake up the next day and be all better.
This is NOT me. This is NOT who I am. I
am was a kind and thoughtful person before cancer left my spirit beaten and bruised. Even if I felt like I like was dying, I would put your illness ahead of mine. I would comfort and take care of you. I would ask what I could do to be there for YOU. Even if I had just had surgery myself, I would gladly and altruistically chop vegetables and brown chicken for your homemade chicken soup. And I would do it without a second thought.
Though my ovaries weren’t technically stolen, I feel like the deeply compassionate person I used to be was.
While this isn’t great news for most of the people in my life, it is worse news for my twin 3rd graders. I fear that there will come a time when I devalue their medical experiences, their illnesses, their scrapes and bruises, their throat cultures and their trips to the doctor for a flu shot or a blood draw, or the sessions with the nebulizer to that help with their asthma. And that’s just not good.
So I am trying my best to undo some of what the cancer has done. I am making a conscious effort to put the severity of some of my experiences aside to look at things as they are for other people and to avoid comparisons. I am trying to give my boys the special hugs they need for their scraped knees and to talk them through their fears of having blood drawn or shots given. And, as was the case this week, I am putting my own exhaustion and pain and sickness aside (as much as I can, anyway) to care for these boys who need me. Case in point — even though my brain shouted, “Don’t do it!” because I am leukopenic and neutropenic, I climbed into my son’s hospital bed to cuddle with him because he was worried about what was going to happen to him… While I can’t guarantee that it always will, my heart won this time.
I am really trying to do what counts for my kids. But I may still look at you with envy when you tell me you have a cold.
*Special thanks to Donna & Robert Trussell for allowing me to use their fantastic cartoons*