After the treatment...

It has been almost a month since my chemo treatments ended. A month filled with lots of activities, some cancer related and some just about regular life. Maybe it’s the timing or maybe I would’ve had this experience at any time of the year, but I’m finding there is a sadness that has descended upon me, kind of like when I woke up this morning and there was a thick fog outside. And I’m having trouble navigating myself out of it into the light.

November is notoriously a challenging month for me. No matter what my state of mind is going into the month, by Thanksgiving I feel the sadness creeping in. November 30th will mark the seventeenth anniversary of the day we lost our daughter, Hope. And even though throughout the rest of the year I can usually reframe that entire experience for the gift it has offered, come the end of November, I’m just sad.

Layer that with the transition out of chemo and it has been just plain tough.

On the physical level, my body has responded well to the end of chemo. I’m starting to get the feeling back in my finger tips and the tingling has lessened quite a bit. But my skin has erupted with bumps that I can only imagine are the toxins finding a way to work themselves out of my body. The bumps itch, but I can’t scratch because then I bleed. So I do my best to ignore them. They’ve been there for about two weeks now and I’m hoping they will soon subside.

I’ve also gotten my appetite back and it has returned with a vengeance. This was most evident when I was in Colorado Springs for my son’s gymnastics competition. Did you know that the Doubletree hotel offers free chocolate chip cookies at the front desk? And they will give you one any time you ask! Feeling too embarrassed to return several times a day, I took advantage of my son’s youth and had him request the warm, delicious treat on my behalf. I think I ate two a day for the four days we were there! They also had a wonderful breakfast spread that was included with the stay. Although I love breakfast, it’s not a meal I indulge in that often. But at the Doubltree that week I filled my plate with several samples each morning. I ate as if I’d been rescued from a deserted island where I hadn’t eaten in months. I just could not get enough food.

This is problematic for a couple reasons. One, it triggered all my eating issues from my twenties. Even though I know I can afford to gain a few pounds, I worry about that slippery slope. Images of the blueberry girl from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” enter my brain. I know it’s not logical, but my fear is that once I start eating, I will immediately balloon out to the big girl I was in my youth.

Also, with my current state of mind, I can’t discern whether it’s depression that I’m feeding or a real need for nourishment. So I worry that this need to feed myself will never end.

But of course it does, at least intermittently. Since I returned from Colorado, I’ve managed to get back to my regular eating habits several days a week. But there’s a battle that goes on in my head every day about my desire to eat loads and loads of carbs or treat my body with the care it deserves and make healthy choices. Some days, the depression wins. And it certainly doesn’t help that the holidays are upon us and there’s lots more opportunities to indulge.

But my sense is that the eating is just a symptom of the larger problem: this nasty depression that’s lingering.

Yes, dealing with the death of Hope is one thing. But this feels like it’s much more about the cancer stuff.

I was recently at a doctor’s appointment and found myself sitting next to the most lovely young lady. Her hair was a bit longer then mine, (Oh, yes, I have hair again! It’s growing in slowly, but pretty soon I will be ditching the scarves and doing my best ‘Wakanda Forever’ fierce woman look from “Black Panther.”) and I began a conversation with her about where she was in her treatment. Turned out she did the same regiment as me. After chatting for a bit, I asked her if she experienced depression upon completion of her treatment. Her eyes widened as she exclaimed “Oh, yes! Very much so.” She went on to share how she began seeing a psychiatrist to give her support and after a month of being on a low dose of anti-depressants, was beginning to feel herself again. She also learned about how chemo affects our brains and explained how it can take several months for us to begin to feel better. I was so grateful for that conversation.

All along, I have felt so supported by friends and family, but this conversation solidified a recurring thought I’ve had about reaching out for additional help from cancer support groups.

This journey began nine months ago. And for the outsider witnessing me in this process, it may appear that I’m fine and no longer need support. But what I’ve realized is that being in treatment provided me with an active role in fighting cancer. And now, with treatment ending, I feel isolated and unprotected, like I’m fighting without any weapons.

I hope I’m not presenting too bleak a picture here. It’s not like I’m walking around feeling doom and gloom all of the time. The busyness of my life keeps me from dwelling in the lows for too long, and I’m grateful for that. These feelings are more an undercurrent, a constant that sits right below the surface. And even a tiny scratch causes the feelings to flow.

So while I’d thought the chemo ending was going to be the beginning of the end, I guess I’m realizing that I’m still deep in the heart of the process. I have so many fears about learning that the cancer is still there, that I will have to continue treatment, or even that I still may die from this.

So the doctor’s appointments continue, the testing and the medications will be a constant. In the next six weeks I have eight doctor’s appointments and a surgery. And I was told I will most likely be on medication for ten years.

As I write that, I hear a voice in my head uttering “wah, wah, wah”. What a pity party I’m having for myself. And believe me, the irony of my strong desire to stay alive, but feeling so sad and complaining about my experience does not escape me. I’m doing my best to release judgments. And while I work on forgiving myself, I ask that you, too, please forgive me. I really don’t like that part of myself, but these blogs are about transparency and this is where I am these days.

I guess part of my lesson is that I can feel two conflicting things at the same time. So experiencing tremendous gratitude for the blessings in my life and sadness or depression simultaneously is ok.

It occurred to me during one of my recent walks that maybe this is my winter; a time to be quiet and still and listen to my heart. Maybe, like some animals who hibernate, I’m settling in so I can awake, fresh and new, ready to start the next chapter, a healthy, more grounded self.

Deep breaths, one foot in front of the other, acceptance, gratitude, seeking out the opportunities to learn and grow. This is my life and I am grateful. And so it is.

In loving,

Sarah

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