I Miss Me
November 22, 2021
Not every day, but definitely most, I miss the old version of me. The pre-cancer me. The cocky version of myself that never took out an additional cancer insurance policy because there was no scenario in which I would ever be diagnosed with cancer me. I was too healthy, a rule follower, I ate some vegetables, never smoked and exercised version of me. Mostly though, the above average intelligence version of me. I know brilliant people. That wasn’t me, but this sure isn’t me either. I worked hard, studied and when I applied myself, things usually worked out in my favor. Now, I laugh on the outside while crying on the inside. I forget things and when I’m tired; well, let’s just say the ship has sailed. I joke that I am the best secret keeper ever. It’s true, but not because I am overly moral person, but because I honestly probably won’t remember your biggest secret three days later anyway.
My oncologist tells me that I am far enough from my last chemo that what I have regained brain processing wise is probably what I will get. He teases me that my pre cancer brain was smart enough that the run of the mill individual doesn’t even notice my biggest post cancer frustration, my brain. Before cancer, I had a full-time career, remembered to stop and pick up the milk, knew that one kid had soccer practice on every other Tuesday and which child had a peanut allergy. Now, I compensate. If you know me well, I can’t fool you. Otherwise, most days, I play what I consider a hell of a game. Sometimes, it’s just a tired, multi-tasking mom of three brain. Add in two dogs, my innate inability to say no to most anything, and a husband that is beyond amazing, but works A LOT and I was probably screwed either way. But, this is the scary, no amount of caffeine or sleep fixes it kind of brain. It helps, but doesn’t negate. This is you’ve just returned to your full-time job, your baby still gets up twice of night and your toddler doesn’t stop moving sort of brain fog. Then, you return to your notes four months later, when your baby is sleeping through the night and realize shit … what was I thinking sort of brain. This is me … all the time.
The other missing parts can be complained about, but the happiness to be alive most always counteract. It’s sometimes hard not being able to feel my fingertips or that when it is a hot summer day, my hands are still freezing. My family has learned to deal with the high heat bills and that they can walk around in shorts in mid-December. It gives me an excuse to snuggle with my husband. I do miss snow skiing though. Winter gear is incredible, but nothing can assist quite enough with these hands.
I’m missing a fair amount of my left lung and the remaining isn’t exactly functional. Cancer spread to my left ribs so I’m missing four and a chronic fracture of one leads to most of my post cancer pain issues. What is remaining of my rib cage isn’t exactly strong or overly protective … multiple surgeries and radiation kind of does that to you. I can manage this though, great doctors, a lot of stretching and low level pilates. It definitely doesn’t hurt that by career choice I am a physical therapist. A fair amount of post thoracotomy patients have pain complaints. It is a structurally difficult area with about a billion nerves that can be compromised. I’ve kind of lost track, but I think I have had five thoractomies.
I pay a lot for eyelash extensions. If you can make it work in your budget, it is one of my biggest recommendations. It feels amazing to look into the mirror and not have chemo the first thing you think about. Try the glue on ones from Target or befriend a cosmetologist. It is worth it. These days, my glasses hide my amazing eyelashes. At 38, I contracted shingles in my right eye. At this age, literally impossible, right? Wrong. It was shingles, it got bad enough that it affected my vision and was incredibly painful for three weeks and is still annoying if I haven’t slept enough. After what essentially equates to two bone marrow transplants as part of my clinical trial, my blood levels will always be low. So, I catch pretty much every single cold that one of my three kids bring home. Apparently, I also contracted shingles. The virus for those mostly north of 70. I compensate with trendy glasses and the ability to go a few hours without them. My eyesight isn’t really all that bad, it is just that it is only in my right eye. So, after a few hours of my left eye trying to compensate a headache always ensues.
Most days, I am beyond grateful. But forgetting your best friends name of twenty years while you are having a conversation with them isn’t exactly easy. Missing out on activities because functioning requires a two-hour nap is not my dream. I know it sounds like a dream for sleep deprived adults, but it is different. Running which was never fast was an enjoyable stress reliever for me. I lack the rib cage stability or the lung volume to pull that off anymore, but I’ve got a good 100 yard jog in me still.
Life is different, but don’t despair. It is also beautiful. It sometimes just feels that the outside world feels that once you have stopped treatment the pre-cancer YOU will magically return. It doesn’t. This is the new me. A body that I cherish because it has been through so much and mostly came out on the other end, but it is worn out. It supports me much as though an active seventy year old body would and somedays I just miss forty one.
A few ways I’ve learned to compensate:
- Write EVERYTHING down. Even the things that came automatically to you before cancer. Multi-brain tasking is hard now.
- Give yourself grace. This is sometimes the hardest especially when you begin to look like a pre-cancer version of yourself on the outside.
- Take Pictures! I usually just need something to “jog” a memory and then I can take it from there. Sometimes, that means even taking a picture of where I parked.
- Take time for a nap. I really do require a daily nap and it isn’t even so much for my physical body. My brain needs a processing rest break. Optimally, that means thirty minutes of quiet. Turn off the cell phones, technology and music. It’s a brain break not just a body break. The first time I really realized this is after I went to a movie with my husband. I was mentally exhausted. Big screen, loud noises full on brain stimulation.
- Learn to say no. It’s hard. I love to be involved, to contribute and to have fun. I’ve learned that I can handle one activity per day outside of my norm. I can schedule additional and I can probably figure out how to power through, but I will have to resign myself to being stuck in bed for the next two.
- Don’t stop using your brain. Just like muscles, if you don’t use it you lose it. Just know that your brain deserves a break too!
I’d love to hear comments if you have any post cancer struggles, physical or mental. We celebrate completing treatment, but our health care system isn’t the greatest following up with our physical bodies that are left behind after poison has been pumped through us. It happens and if it happens to you, please know that you are not the only one.