Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The mourning and grief of cancer

So here's a confession: I've been depressed. I'm not exactly sure how long I've been depressed, but I definitely think it coincided with being back in the classroom, which means mid-January. Which means probably I've been carrying around a low-level funk for the last three months.

I've assumed that it would pass--this feeling of melancholy and sadness that seems to sit with me. I assumed that there is no rational reason for me to feel this way--that I am back in the classroom and resuming my life and so why would I feel depressed? Why should I feel sad? I'm alive. My hair grew back. I'm done with chemotherapy and surgery. The only current treatment I'm on is the tamoxifen.

And then today a friend and colleague who has been through a similar experience wrote to me and shared that this period that I'm in--the transition from diagnosis & treatment to life AFTER and INTO, in her phrase, "a new normal" or "new identity" was very difficult for her.

Reading that it hit me: it is difficult for me.

I walked to the grocery store and thought about the nature of my depression--just WHY I felt so sad, and I realized that I'm in a state of mourning: I am grieving for my life pre-cancer diagnosis.

There is so much grief and mourning that we associate with cancer--and usually we think of it specifically around someone's death--that cancer has claimed so many lives. And that certainly is true--that certainly is the existential heart of why cancer is so fearsome and difficult--because it does claim so many lives.

But there's another aspect of mourning and grief related to a cancer diagnosis--and that is the certainty of living your life without the knowledge of cancer. I no longer have that certainty.

Now, I just want to be clear. I am not fearful of a recurrence in the sense that I am hyper-anxious or that I'm doing or not doing things because I fear a cancer recurrence. I am also acutely aware that of the various kinds of cancer that one could be afflicted with, having stage 2 breast cancer that has not metastatized is not as traumatic a diagnosis as other kinds of cancer diagnoses. I say this not to rank cancers (because that's like ranking oppressions) but to acknowledge that in many ways I'm lucky. I have a type of cancer that has a lot of exposure/fund raising/research in which women, like myself, have benefitted materially. Once upon a time, breast cancer was a death sentence--and because of all those pink ribbons or more to the point, the money raised and used in research that the pink ribbons helped to bring about, I am the recipient of better treatment protocols and therapies.

But even if I think of stage 2 breast cancer as a "good" cancer--as a "curable" cancer--the truth is, I don't feel cured. I don't feel like I'm cancer free. I don't feel like a survivor.

I also don't feel jinxed or unlucky or fated to die an early death.

What I do feel is uncertainty. I am just not sure. Not sure whether the cancer will come back. Not sure if it does come back whether it will lead to an earlier death than I would have had. Not sure whether any other aches or pains or bumps on my body are indicative of cancer in other parts of my body that are harder for me to see--my ovaries, my uterus, my liver, my pancreas.

And I am in grief and mourning because I feel like however briefly I have thought about it--I am all too aware of my own mortality--of the fragility of my body--that at some point, whether because of cancer or some other force, I will one day die. And to think about your mortality, to feel it keenly, however briefly, is something that stays with you. It's like my mastectomy scars--it's not something I am conscious of 24/7, but it is a permanent reminder on my body, of my body, in my body.

I am also in grief and mourning over things that will no longer come to pass--most specifically having a biological child with Matthew. Perhaps this wouldn't have happened regardless of cancer. But the fertility issue was really complicated by chemo and made more impossible by my tamoxifen treatment. And then there's my age--being 41 doesn't exactly spell the height of fertility. So like I said, it's not like this was ever a lock for us--but knowing that my cancer treatments have shut that door has been part of my grief and mourning--even while we both recognize and are excited by a adoption plans (which we aren't enacting just yet since I'd like to say I'm a year cancer-free or at least post-surgery before starting any adoption procedures).

I wasn't going to write about any of this--it seemed all too personal and private. But then I thought it was important to put this out there. I'm not exactly sure who is reading this blog anymore, but I know that some people have found their way here because you may also be going through what I'm going through (or went through). And I thought that just as my friend reached out to me and shared part of her own difficulties during this moment of transition, it was important for me to also note that this period of transition is hard. I am sad. And I will be finding help--I've put a call out to a therapist and hopefully will be seeing her soon.

Finally, the last thing I'll leave you with is that I think my other reluctance to share this phase that I'm in, is feeling like I have to be strong and to reassure everyone that I'm OK. And I am OK, in the sense that I'm not having any pain or awful side effects -- and that exhaustion/fatigue are really the last lingering vestiges of chemo and surgery that I'm carrying with me in terms of cancer treatment. But in other ways, I'm really not OK. I'm not OK with having this diagnosis. Or having surgery to remove both my breasts. Or living with the tightness around my scars--or sometimes seeing myself in the shower or in the mirror and feeling this tiny shock of seeing myself as if for the first time, breastless.