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Life After Breast Cancer

Sunday, August 07, 2011


My girlfriends and I are talking about taking a trip to Paris next year, and we’re interested in staying in a “vacation rental by owner” as opposed to a hotel. I’ve found numerous websites that list Paris rentals by arrondissements, or neighborhoods, provide photographs and prices of fully furnished apartments and dates they’re available. Each arrondissement has it’s own distinct charm. For instance, the 8th Arrondissement reflects the quintessential glamour and elegance that is Paris. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triumph all share the same streets as chi-chi apartments with high ceilings, windows swathed in pale blue silk, parquet floors and furniture worthy of Marie Antoinette. The 5th and 6th Arrondissements on the Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, is home to the universities of the Sorbonne and the more bohemian and intellectual parts of the city. Perhaps it’s the window peeper in me, but I like the idea of staying in someone else’s home, stepping into their shoes, if you will. It gives me the opportunity to abandon my life for a short time and try part of a stranger’s life on for size. While thinking about a trip to Paris, it occurred to me that at some point after finishing breast cancer treatment, it might be helpful if we all stepped into someone else’s shoes for a time.<PREVIEWEND>

Like little kids who know the number of days until Christmas or summer vacation, most of us count down the days until we’re finished with chemo and radiation. Even though we’re happy to have treatment behind us, it’s not uncommon to find it scary to be “on our own.” During treatment we had super fighters like chemo and radiation, while frequent doctors’ appointments kept a close eye on the rise and fall of cancer antigens and the state of our immune system. Even though we had no hair and no energy, both were tangible symbols that something was hard at work, killing our cancer. Soon after we’re finished with treatment, however, our hair grows back and we’re “on our own,” and it’s easy to let our fears take over.

It’s at that point that family and friends may question why we’re not embracing our life again, ecstatic to be free of doctors’ appointments and nausea. “Why aren’t you doing the happy dance?” they ask, perplexed by our insidious and seemingly illogical fears that our cancer will return. “You finished treatment a year ago… or you finished treatment five years ago… Move on already. Why can’t you just let it go?” Because our co-survivors have also looked forward to life returning to “normal,” they don’t always understand why we can’t leave cancer behind as easily as they can. While we know why we can’t, it’s often difficult to make others understand, plus sometimes, “stuff” happens along the way that makes it even harder.

I remember being at my first post treatment yoga class. Without warning, in the middle of a Sun Salutation pose, I dropped to the floor like a rock. I felt like I’d been flung from a Tilt-a-Whirl. The room was spinning, and I couldn’t orient myself or find a way to sit-up. Immediately I thought I’d overdone things; perhaps I should’ve waited another week, or maybe “it” had already metastasized to my brain. “It” turned out to be a persistent case of positional vertigo. You would have thought I would have been thrilled it wasn’t a brain tumor and that I would soon return “to normal,” but on some level, the vertigo made me feel even more vulnerable. For a short time, it took away my self-confidence about being able to successfully move forward after treatment. If in a blink, a microscopic piece of something in my inner ear could turn my world on its axis, what would cancer do if it returned that quickly and profoundly?

Whether it’s cancer, vertigo, death or divorce, all of us occasionally find ourselves in need of something to get us back on tract and help us focus on something or someone other than ourselves. If you’ve ever watched The Dog Whisperer on TV, Cesar Millan frequently rehabilitates dogs by jerking their chain. When he wants a dog to stop one kind of behavior and adopt another, he jerks the chain around their neck, forcing them out of their negative behavior. People are like that as well. If you’re having trouble getting your footing after something devastating and life-changing, perhaps you need a bridge to help you get you from the slump you’re in to your new normal.

I’m gradually finding my way without James, and without a family, but I won’t lie to you: It’s been hard, but I’m making progress. From time to time, we all need something like “vacation rental by owner” where we adopt someone else’s lifestyle, volunteer to help abused and abandoned children, take an art class or learn another language. Like Cesar Millan, we need to jerk our chains and jumpstart our brains to snap us out of our funk and keep us from worrying that we’re all on our own.

While my girlfriends and I can’t afford to step into most of the luxurious lifestyles in the 8th Arrondisement, we can stroll up and down the avenues, sip champagne and strive to find a little of the nonchalant chic French women seem to be born with. Personally, I think the mystery about French women has more to do with their bien dans ta peau, being comfortable in their own skin. Regardless of whether we ever try and step into a French woman’s shoes, we should try and adopt their passion for life. We shall only pass this way but once, so let’s make the most of it.


PS: About vertigo: Fortunately my doctor gave me a series of exercises designed to reposition the microscopic crystal in my inner ear that had become dislodged. By the way, you can find these exercises on the Internet. I did the exercises at least twice a day, over a period of a week or so, and my vertigo stopped. While it’s come back several times since then, consistently doing the exercises makes it go away.



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