It Can Be Frustrating to Always Be on the Defense for Your Health
“Oh my goodness, you look super skinny today!” used to be a compliment. It meant I was keeping up with my workouts, eating healthier than the average teenager, and not drinking alcohol. One of my aunts said this to me just days before my tumor was found and I figured the spinning classes I had started to take regularly were a good way to break up my regular 3-mile runs. The gap between my thighs that grew what seemed to be weekly meant I was toning up my thighs, not that I was losing my nutrients to my cancer.
These signs have changed so much to me in the past six years. Through treatment, I was watching my weight in an unhealthful way – I didn’t want to be the “fat” cancer patient. Worrying about my weight and appearance (somewhat neurotically) stemmed back to the second grade for me when two girls called me fat, and I would be damned if the only thing I got out of chemo was free massages and sandwiches delivered to my chair by the cute volunteer. Every doctor's appointment started the same way, I’d get weighed, have my blood pressure and O2 levels taken, and then get ready for them to dig around my chest to try and get a blood sample from my port. Looking back, never once has a Dr., nurse, or tech ever asked me how I was feeling before I stepped on the scale.
In a world full of fat-shaming, thin-shaming, and obsessive vanity- why are we still worried about the quantity of our being rather than the quality? This all started coming back to me when the first thing my Primary Care doctor said to me at my annual appointment a year or so ago was, “you lost a lot of weight since last year” as she flew through the door ten minutes late and without a knock. I was shocked. Not because I didn’t know I had lost weight, but because she didn’t even look at me before the words spilled out.
Two weeks before that I went to the walk-in for antibiotics for a sinus infection. I stepped on the scale and was shocked at the number – I weighed less than I did during the majority of my high school years. I was alarmed, and I wanted to know why. Needless to say, I was back in my oncologists office for a non-routine follow-up the next week. The sinus infection was gone, I had no fever, and I felt better than ever; but there I was swinging my legs as they hung off the exam table waiting for my PA to come in. She was not too concerned and actually gave me a hug as soon as she walked in. We determined that the change in my diet – cutting out gluten and dairy last December at a last ditch effort to solve my mysterious battle with IBS – was probably to blame for the weight loss. I left the office feeling better, my blood work was perfect, my glands were not swollen, and my PA gave me a few food ideas to try to supplement the lack of fat and carbs in my diet.
I walked back into work to my coworkers who had been telling me I was “disappearing” repeatedly over the last few months. Never once did anyone believe that I stopped eating certain food groups because for once, my IBS was basically untraceable and I felt like a whole new person. They, along with friends and family, figured I was either self-sabotaging to get super thin or my cancer had returned. I have to say, it is quite frustrating to always be on the defense for your health.
Right there – that’s it. “It’s quite frustrating always be on the defense for your health.” The sentence that sums up my young life and adult life, severed by the pillar of my cancer diagnosis. Now, I am always on the defense.
Typical health rules don’t generally apply to me. Symptoms that most people wouldn’t bat an eye at send me to the walk-in, nervous and convinced it’s always something more. I don’t lead with the cancer card, and I don’t have a sign on my forehead that says “Ask me about my cancer!” so when the clinic Dr. says “You have a cold” I deflate knowing that my lungs are my “weak point” now and this will for sure turn into something more. Then I reluctantly fill them in on my young-adult cancer diagnosis, and their tune changes. It seems like medical rules don’t apply to me anymore.
I look at myself now more often-than-not as a by-product of my disease. I am a collection of cells that went through grueling chemo, were changed at the most basic chemical levels, and proliferated to become 26-year-old me. This “new normal” -which I am eternally grateful for – is nothing my previous normal state was. Immediately after chemo, I swore even my bones felt different.
The rest of my life seems sped up – which is honestly the only way I’d want it now. I didn’t want to spend a semester of college abroad, move to a big city for the thrill of it, or go to school to be something important until I was 35. I already had the life experience most people search for to set them on their destined path – although my endorphin rushes came from “NED” PET Scan results instead of zip lining in Costa Rica. I graduated college as soon as possible with as little partying as possible. I got a job at the hospital I was treated at and started saving for my first house. I got engaged to the guy who loved me when I wasn’t even sure I would ever need a man after surviving on my own – and then married him.
Surviving cancer made me more sure of myself than ever. I look at life differently than pre-cancer me and most other people who haven’t experienced it – whether it be health issues, body image, the timeline of events, or who I choose to allow into my life. Sure, it can get to me at times, but at the end of the day I can rest on the fact that I am stronger than many – both mentally and emotionally. Defending my health is now the only thing I feel I need to defend. I can live a life – a simple life with a husband, house, family, friends and dogs – the way I want to. Period.
Photo courtesy of the author.