The thing about cancer is that it changes everything. It changes things in ways that are unpredictable. It changes things in ways that are surprising.
It changes your confidence in your self. I didn’t realize until I began treatment that I used my hair, my contact lenses and my makeup as tools of defence, things that made me comfortable when I went out. With the number of side effects I have had with my skin, I now must face the world defenceless, vulnerable. I’ve come to realize that no one really notices what you look like and that this perceived vulnerability is a uniquely female experience (good old patriarchy!). I look forward to the day when I choose to go out “defenceless” and feel confident doing so.
It changes your relationship with your friends. It has become challenging to talk to people who are healthy about normal things. Small talk becomes a chore. I am at a loss for things to say. Joining online support groups, going to support centres like Hearth Place, reading old messages from all of you about your own family members beating cancer and meeting other young moms with breast cancer have been an immense source of comfort for me, showing me the strength and courage with which ordinary people live their lives with cancer.
It changes your relationship with your children. I struggle to do the simple things with them. It is difficult to concentrate on a bedtime story, painful to be hit accidentally in areas that are still healing, exhausting to give them a bath, nauseating to feed them dinner. I used to feel guilty that I could not do these things as easily anymore. Now I try to imagine each moment that I am able to spend with them as a small victory.
It changes your relationship with your body and mind. I have succumbed to the process of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, endless numbers of pills and in doing so, my body has become unrecognizable. My mind is cloudy, memories blur into one another, the right words slip through my fingers. When I am able to, I try to understand my body as strong and resilient, enduring so much already. I remind myself to take care of the body that has taken care of me for so long.
It changes your relationship with your partner. This has been maybe the most difficult to deal with as treatment has created a divide between us. Constant nausea and hot flashes make it impossible for us to even sleep together. We both struggle mentally with the worst possible outcome, imagining my life without me, but because it means two totally different things for each of us, we struggle to relate to one another. What do I say to someone who is terrified of being left behind to continue the life we built together by himself? What does he say to me when I consider that this may be the best time I have left; that I may not be one of the lucky ones who make it? There is more silence in our house and it is profoundly lonely.
These are the battles that are fought upon my body and upon my mind every second of every day in my war against cancer. It is not that I want cancer to take over my life. Far from it. I hate every moment it steals away from me. It is more like it is the lens through which everything must now be viewed. If there is a merciful moment where I am able to forget, the physical reminders (the black nails, bloodshot eyes, eyelashes and eyebrows in your tea, the constant lump in my throat) are always there to remind me again. In spite of these changes, most days I am hopeful. Hopeful that I will be one of the lucky ones, hopeful that my cancer will not return, hopeful that my experience will make me a more grateful, sensitive and kind person and hopeful that these changes will eventually help me to lead my life with greater passion and less fear.