As cancer survivors, we all sacrificed parts of our bodies in the hope that we would live. Later we realized the physical losses of cancer were only the beginning. This is Part 2 in a series of Life After Cancer.
by Lynne Hartke
Several years ago, while our daughter was asleep and home alone, a burglar entered our house through an unlocked window.
Let me rephrase that.
A BURGLAR CAME INTO OUR HOUSE WHILE OUR DAUGHTER WAS HOME ALONE AND SLEEPING!
The burglar wandered around our possessions, took some cash and left. I have had friends who have lost much more to burglars, but the sense of having your personal space violated is the same. You fill out the initial police report and itemize what was taken. But over time, you realize the burglar took other things that you didn’t notice right away.
Such it is with cancer. The burglar appears in your home (usually while you are unaware and sleeping), takes a few things (or a lot of things) and leaves. Sometimes the burglar also causes extensive damage. In the initial panic and emotion, you realize some of what you have lost, but over time, you begin to realize the list is much longer.
With each new realization of what has been taken, you feel robbed all over again.
For the sake of this post, I will be talking about the physical losses and changes of cancer. In the next three blog posts, I will be talking about the emotional, spiritual and relational losses and changes.
The Physical Losses and Changes of Cancer
- The Loss of Body Parts
As cancer survivors, we all sacrificed parts of our bodies in the hope that we will live. Skin. Hair. Eyebrows. A breast or breasts. A lung. A prostate. An ovary. The list goes on. For some the resulting scars are obvious, for others, they are not. For some the sacrifices caused a loss of sleep, for others, the physical losses have not been what is difficult.
After surgery, I remember feeling self-conscious of my body in a way I had not felt since taking group showers with other female classmates after 7th grade gym class. For someone who never struggled with body image, I found myself asking questions like, “Will my husband still find me beautiful?”
Paula admitted to dressing and undressing with the lights off for several months after her mastectomy and made sure her husband wasn’t home before soaking in the tub.
Carolyn was one who didn’t find the physical changes difficult. “As for losses, I do not feel a huge sad loss for losing my breast,” she wrote. “I had a bilateral mastectomy and I am reminded of it every day with the phantom itches and numb parts of my body. And yes, that is frustrating. I see the scars, but that’s ok, they don’t bother me. God has allowed me to go on living.”
- The Loss of the Body You Knew
Every survivor I interviewed mentioned a sense of feeling beat up or broken after treatment, a lingering sense of not being “normal.” All were thankful to be alive, but were unsure – many for the first time – about the person living inside their own skin.
Carolyn, who didn’t struggle with the loss of her breast, admitted, “The living is different. My body is different. I look in the mirror and see someone totally different.”
“I was so excited and relieved [to finish chemo],” Denise wrote, “but I remember not feeling totally elated, because I still felt lousy – taste buds were not ‘happy’ with foods. I couldn’t swallow wine, and when I looked in the mirror, I still had a bald head! It seemed like I was tired all the time. I wanted my energy back and I wanted to feel ‘normal’ … whatever that was.”
Realizing the burglar took more than the initial body part(s), include, but are not limited to, the following physical side effects:
- Intimacy issues
- Sleep changes
- Pain, including joint pain
- Numbness or tingling
- For women – hot flashes, early menopause
- Gain/loss weight
- Hair loss
- Loss of previously enjoyed physical activities
No wonder it is difficult to recognize the person in the mirror!
Tina wrote about her eagerness to get back to life after treatment, of returning to her personal trainer, healthy lifestyle, and running. Her weakness frustrated her. “I could no longer run a mile without stopping. I couldn’t lift weights yet. I slowly saw the pounds rising. Each time I tried to push myself, something would happen, such as swelling in my arm where lymph nodes were removed. I had a hard time sleeping. I became dependent on sleeping aids at night and suffered joint pain. For someone who knew her body, it felt like a stranger to me.”
The Comparison Game
I need to stop here for a minute, because I noticed this thing when I was interviewing people – the need to minimize their own journey because they knew someone who had it much worse. It’s a weird thing we do as cancer survivors. I participate in an online breast cancer support group. Often posts begin with the words, “I know others on this site are having a harder time, but I wanted to let you know….”
If you find yourself playing this game, let me just say, “Stop it. Stop it right now.” It doesn’t matter if you are stage 1 or stage 4. If you had one surgery or ten. 6 rounds of chemo or 235 times like my friend Alan.
Don’t be an At Leaster!
At least the cancer is contained. At least the children are grown. At least you have the help you need. At least they caught the cancer early. At least I only lost one breast. At least. At least. At least.
“At least”, according to author, Jennifer Gilbert, means, “Move on. Get over it. Let’s not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better.”
Cancer has touched us all and we are all dealing. Wretched burglar! Give yourself grace. Give others grace.
Marguerite admitted she sometimes feels guilty when she meets someone having a more difficult time with cancer, but I think says it for all of us when she writes, “All I know is, cancer stinks.”
Caregivers, especially fall into this trip. Kathy wrote, “I always had a hard time complaining or whining about anything, because ‘he was the sick one.’ I felt so guilty that I would have the nerve to say anything negative to him. I beat myself up a lot.”
Can we as cancer survivors, caregivers and patients hold hands over our hearts and declare, “We will no longer put qualifiers to our pain and struggle. We will offer sincere condolences, or a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on, without minimizing someone else’s pain by adding an At Least“?
Thank you. Getting off my soap box.
So where does that leave us with these new bodies we have?
- Learn to Listen To Your Body – Maybe for the First Time.
Before cancer I always felt like I knew my body and thought I had taken good care of it. I was in extremely good shape when I was diagnosed, having run a short triathlon earlier that year. As the mom — before cancer — I had always taken pride in being able to organize things, take care of the family and not need much help. Well, guess what? That house of cards came crashing down with cancer. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
I am learning how to listen to my body in regard to sleep, exercise and food.
Last week, my granddaughter, age 22 months, learned a new phrase, “Need this.” Her brother wouldn’t let her play with his new toy, so she quietly took pieces when he wasn’t looking, each time saying, “Need this.” Now I am not sure I need a plastic pirate penguin, but I definitely need to learn a lesson from my granddaughter in regard to speaking up when I run out of me and need help from others.
Or God. When I need God.
- Listen to the truth about how God looks at you.
I found I needed to read, over and over again, Psalm 139:17-18.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I awake, I am still with You.
When I need to hear that truth in dark corners, I look again at these words.
So, let me ask:
What has been your hardest physical loss from cancer?
What has been helpful to you as you realized one more thing the burglar has taken? What has been difficult?
What do you tell yourself when you look in the mirror?
Next week we will be looking at the emotional upheaval after cancer.