No one has ever asked me, “What does cancer feel like?” I’m not sure too many people really want to know the answer, and, so, it makes sense I have not been queried on this topic. Someone did ask Donna Peach what the disease feels like, though, and while she did not share her whole response with the questioner, she did pour out her thoughts in writing, and, WOW, her words are really, really powerful and really, really sobering and really, really eye-opening.
I told Donna I was going to take a stab at answering the same question. Here goes:
What does cancer feel like?
>like a disease I can’t possibly get at the age of 34 (even though there is a bump of some sort in my left breast) because everyone says young women do not get it, and I have two kids, and that would just be really cruel if I had to deal with a life-threatening disease and the overwhelming demands of a 3-year-old little boy and his 18-month-old brother.
>like paralyzing fear when the doc says about the bump after an ultrasound, “I want that out and in a jar.” I ask, “Could it be cancer?” She says, “Yes.”
>like an impossibility when the biopsy surgeon tells me it is hard to locate by needle, it moves around too much. Good signs.
>like a death sentence when surgeon reveals over the phone that the lump I found while washing in the shower is, indeed, breast cancer.
>like a chest-caving and gut-sinking reality after learning that my treatment line-up will include, in addition to surgery, probably radiation and chemotherapy.
>like the worst sting ever. Chemotherapy. Nooooo!
>like a show-stopper when I tell the mom of the child I watch a few days a week that I can no longer care for her baby girl.
>like a disabling case of the blues as I join family members for a day-after-diagnosis Thanksgiving and stew in my own misfortune.
>like anxiety so severe sleeping pills are prescribed, although I only take one because I hate drugs.
>like anger over the realization that medications will likely spill through my body and poison me and take my hair.
>like panic as I am rolled into surgery not knowing whether I will come out with one or two breasts.
>like relief when I discover I have two breasts.
>like hope when I learn the tumor is small, lymph nodes are not involved, and the margins are clean.
>like a ray of sunshine when the surgeon tells my mom I may not need chemo.
>like jump-out-of-my-skin pain when the tape used to bandage my parts post-lumpectomy melts into my skin. Doctors have never seen anything like it, and they prescribe Xanax, although I only take one because I hate drugs. I learn I am likely allergic to Tegaderm tape and latex.
>like a waiting game — waiting for appointments, waiting for test results, waiting to feel better, waiting all the time.
>like deflating disappointment when surgeon tells me my tumor is 1.1 cm, and chemo is typically given for masses larger than 1 cm, and because I am young, and young women tend to have more aggressive tumors, my treatment will be harsh. Docs even plan to speed up the delivery of toxins, infusing every two weeks instead of three because this seems to be more effective (if the patient can tolerate it).
>like confusion when I read my pathology report and try to make sense of stage and grade and ER and PR and HER2 and more.
>like out-of-control fear, especially at night when I peek at my sleeping babies and imagine a life for them without a mom.
>like an overwhelming love and warmth from the people in my world and their emails, letters, cards, meals, gifts, visits, and support.
This is the conclusion of PART I, not because I don’t want to keep writing, but because I’ll spare you more yuck for now. Granted, there is some good sprinkled in (like relief and hope and love, as mentioned above), but cancer kinda just feels crappy for a good long time. It can get better, though, and it did for me, and PART II will surely be a little more cheery. Or maybe PART III will be.