For anyone who has gone through cancer treatment, there are a lot of uphill battles. Not just the main battle of simply trying to survive cancer, but then the battle of recovering from treatment, and nevermind the emotional struggle that follows us along the way. None of it has been easy for me. When I came home from the Philippines, I had let myself get so far out of shape, that I barely could run one mile, a far cry from the person who was jogging 4-5 miles at a time before I joined the Peace Corps. And so with each passing chemo treatment (8 in all over 4 months), surgery and 33 radiation treatments I fell deeper in weakened state. It's hard enough to try to get back in shape, but with what I've endured over the past 9 months, it sometimes feels impossible. I'm also very aware that I now look like I'm a healthy person (although still overweight and out of shape). I have hair and color back in my cheeks and therefore people now assume since my treatments are done, that I am back to my old self. I also used to hold on to that same assumption, and therefore I catch myself constantly reminding people that my body was poisoned, slashed and burned with rays that went through my entire body for 9 months. I am exhausted a lot. A busy day can wipe me out for days to follow, and it's beyond frustrating. Just this weekend I had back out of visiting friends in Boston because I was still feeling the effects of all the fun from the weekend before. I'm tired of being exhausted, not feeling well enough to keep up with people and scared about my future. How will I ever be able to handle full time employment when I can barely make it through a day of scheduled activities I set for myself? Well, the simple answer is: I'm going to force myself back into my old self, because I can. And Amanda can't. You're probably wondering who Amanda is by now, and I'll explain very soon.
June 27, 2013 was my very last radiation treatment, which meant that was the very last of all major cancer treatment. I did it. I marched into the cancer center dressed in cap and gown because I had finally graduated from cancer treatment, which I found out I was the first person to ever dress up as if I was going to my own graduation. But I needed to make a point to celebrate this day, I was finished and so far it seems to have worked very well as they cannot find any cancer. (For the next 5 years I will be on Tamoxifen, a kind of oral chemo, but not like the chemo I had before that made me sick) And so I had 2 parties to celebrate the occasion. One on the exact day I finished and another 'I Give Cancer the Bird' themed party over 4th of July weekend where I had bunch of my friends, family and Peace Corps Besties come in from all over the country to celebrate with me. It was the first time I had seen my Peace Corps friends since I abruptly left the Philippines a year ago after finding my tumor.
But I struggled allowing myself to celebrate. It didn't feel fair.
On June 22, the weekend before my last treatment, I went to Relay for Life to socialize mostly and to seek out other possible young survivors in my area. You see, all the survivors are given a special purple survivor shirt and therefor it wasn't difficult seeing who was in the cancer club and who wasn't. The social worker at the cancer center and I have been working on forming a young adult survivor group in this area, she's also a young survivor herself. So during the survivors lunch, I scouted the crowd and spotted a cute 20 something girl with a blond bob wearing lipstick and makeup, sitting with her parents. I immediately went up to her and introduced myself. Her name: Amanda Loree. Amanda for the past few years has been battling a form of brain cancer that started when she was a baby, went into remission for 16 years and then in her late teens it came back with a vengeance in her spine. I told her about our plans of having a young survivors group and her face lite up! She told me she didn't know anyone else her age around here with cancer and was so excited to meet me. Her parents were equally excited as they know how important it is for Amanda to find people she can relate to. They even said, it must be fate you both are here today. I jotted down Amanda's number, and she made it very clear she likes to be busy and would love to help me organize it. She also asked me if I had facebook and so when I go home I added her as my friend. I was excited to meet this courageous person. She just graduated from college, because she was determined to not let cancer rule her life and told me she just turned 21 and had her first margarita. I felt instantly bonded to her and imagined all the cool stuff we were going to accomplish with our little group. You should have seen the booth she organized at the Relay for Life, it was one of the biggest and one of the ones that raised the most money.
The very next day, Amanda passed away. Her body had decided it was time.
I found out through facebook, of all places. God, I hate facebook sometimes. I stared at my computer screen for about 20 mins trying to make sense of it all. That can't be the same Amanda I met yesterday, I said to myself. A person who is about to die doesn't wear lipstick, tell me about her first margarita and walk in the Relay for Life. I go to her facebook page and my request was still pending, and continues pending to this day. How can this be?
Still in a state of shock, the next day I went to the hospital to begin my last week of treatments and spotted the social worker who gave me a look that made it all real, and I burst into sobs.
I came home, and decided to cancel my parties. It seemed so unfair to celebrate when her family was mourning. I was already struggling with celebrating these important moments as I know other young survivors who are fighting for their lives everyday. It doesn't seem fair. I'm one of the lucky ones. My treatment went better than expected, no hiccups, no new cancer has been found. My case has been by the book, actually better and it felt terrible celebrating when I know a lot of "Amandas" in my life who are hanging on to hope, even though they all still have cancer.
Then, in the next instant, it felt incredibly selfish to cancel the parties. I needed to celebrate because I can. What an injustice it would be to Amanda if I didn't do something because I was having my own pity party. She can't celebrate milestones anymore, and therefore it is my obligation to make sure I celebrate and do everything I want to do , simply because I can. And that is why I got on that bike today, set out on the road and faced my fear. For her, because I can. And that is why I will be ready for the big ride in September, I need to do it for her just as much as I need to do it for myself. I ride for the Amandas in my life. I ride for Christa, a friend struggling with metastatic breast cancer who is only a couple of years older than me and has to go through an indefinite rounds of chemo. I ride for Todd, a guy I served with in the Philippines who has been battling leukemia for 15 months and has endured 142 days in the hospital and 9 rounds of chemotherapy only to go into remission for a few weeks before it shows back up on blood work again. I ride for Katie, a sweet, shy girl who is only 15 dealing with what they call Cancer of Unknown Primary, meaning they have no idea why she has cancer or how to really treat it. She'll be given chemo until either they find a drug that cures her, or until her body can't handle it any more. I ride for Jake, the brother of a friend I know from the local rugby club who only a few weeks ago was diagnosed with leukemia and suffered a massive stroke the same day, barely in his 20's.
I have been given this incredible second chance, and someday that second chance might be snatched away from me as I have a 50% chance of more cancer in my lifetime being BRCA positive and I also have a higher chance of recurrence given the aggressive nature of the cancer I just had. So no more wasting time, feeling sorry for myself. There's no time to be depressed or tired. I need do what I want to do now, and so do you. Stop making excuses and do those things you want to do. Life is extremely fragile and short, live in the moment, have fun and smile a lot.
So that's why yesterday I took myself to the Basin Bluegrass festival, alone, and had a great time. It's better to do something alone than regretting not doing it at all. No more regrets and carpe diem, to summarize everything with a little cliche.
|Sending our wishes off into the universe at my "I Give Cancer the Bird" party with chinese lanterns|
|My PCV besties!|
|My graduation day with the amazing staff at the Foley Cancer Center|
|My homemade cap :)|