Cancer Survivor Holidays: A Reflection
June was National Cancer Survivor’s Month. As I think about my own personal cancer story and the success I’ve had yet the struggle I face daily, I feel both a strong sense of being a survivor and also a tiredness in the journey of my life-long effects. When the fight is a sprint, I am a good fighter. When the fight is a marathon, I do grow weary to persevere. I have so much to celebrate and also process as I live with lymphedema, a lifelong, irreversible condition due to the treatments I received.
6 years ago. The tumor I once had, gone with surgery. Long story short, my cancer had spread to my tissues and I was treated with Chemotherapy and radiation. For the first few years, I lived in fear as I could not be told for sure if the cancer was gone. As the years progressed, the long-term effects of all three treatments started damaging my body. After I fought through all of my emotions and pulled myself through, I was ready in year 4 post-treatment to really embrace survivorship. Ironically, that was also when swelling began and my blood counts showed damage and changes. I wanted so badly to have a comeback that allowed me to feel strong.
I can tell you that I have fought hard in the small number of years I have been facing this giant called Lymphedema. Luckily, I have made changes to my life and sought out treatment in the past 2 years which has been a huge success. I have won many battles both medically and personally, and I have learned a whole new language known as the lymphatic system. My lymph node transplant last year was successful but does not reverse or eliminate the problems I must face.
Lymphedema occurs when the impairment becomes so great that the lymphatic fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity. Swelling results as an abnormal amount of protein fluid collects in the tissues of the affected area. The lymphatic system is part of our immune system that runs through our entire body. One of the main jobs is to drain the tissues of the waste-filled fluid left behind in the circulatory system. When parts of your lymphatic system are permanently damaged during treatments and surgery it forever impairs the system’s ability to drain this waste fill fluid from your tissues in the affected area. Over time it creates swelling and the longer it sits there the more difficult it is to get rid of. The tissues are irreversibly damaged and it puts a person at risk for many unpleasant complications.
I am emotionally and physically tired of the struggle. Trying to imagine how to live the life I really want to live as a survivor, a mom, a wife, and a person is tough. Who knows the meaning of living in the here and now? The more I can do for my leg the more it responds to treatment, but only at that moment. My lymphatic system is so broken it does not allow for my improvements to stay, thus resulting in me giving up things in my life in order to take care of my leg and overall health. I want to scream and shout that this is too much to handle and I am over it. Yet, the stubborn and determined self that got me through cancer treatment and so many other struggles shouts louder, that there is no giving up and that I will do all the things I need to do… surrender all of my worries and stress to God, who knows just how hard this is for me. As my family completely supports me and sees my daily struggles, I can’t help but feel bad that no one signed up for this. My kids, husband, myself- none of us knew this is what we would face in life, acknowledging that it is hard and that there isn't an end in sight.
I was talking with a friend about cancer and what it does to a person, and how even when the FIGHT is won; the family, relationships, and overall quality of life are severely affected. I found myself giving advice after sympathizing… If I could go back in time and give myself some advice, I would say,
"Dear younger me, stay in the moment even if it's unpleasant. Acknowledge, and express the difficulty so that you can draw on your own strength to pull yourself through. If you push aside the real feelings and how it is affecting you and those around you, then it’s almost impossible to find the new you, the you that has irrevocably changed. Nevertheless, this new you still has the ability to say that your story will be told over and over again to help others and to heal yourself." I may not have things the way I wish they were, and I may dwell too often on the things I can't do or the time-consuming things I have to do daily that take away from being the person I want to be. But, I DO have the ability to never give up, to pray for a cure, and to accept my story as the one that I am writing each and every day. I won’t say “Stay strong survivors”, I’ll say “Stay real and know you are understood!”
Photo courtesy of author.