I am not sick. I am Eileen. Eileen is my given name from birth. That label helps people to identify me and all that I am. Incidentally, I had breast cancer, but breast cancer is not me and I am not it. We had a relationship. It didn’t work out. We parted ways. I will never forget breast cancer as it made a permanent impression on my life and left a few scars. I hope our paths never cross again.
I’d been sick for so long and recovering even longer that I’d taken on a sick person’s identity. Eileen the Sick. The One with the Cancer. Has there been a day that’s gone by in the last four years where the word “cancer” didn’t enter my conversation? And if not my conversation, surely my thoughts.
Cancer became part of my identity – a familiar comfortable place I didn’t shed even when health returned. True, health returns slowly, bit by bit, and sometimes one doesn’t notice slipping into the Okay Zone. The residual complaints make Okay hard to recognize, what with all those ambiguous symptoms that hang around like unwanted guests. I blame all of that on cancer, just in case. If I’m not sure about my aches, pains and cognitive blips, I figure it must be cancer’s fault. It’s a convenient catch-all for all my problems, something I appreciated when cancer and I were in a relationship. I suppose I haven’t wanted to part with that perk. Even if it’s not cancer’s fault, I can’t think of a worthier scapegoat. It’s the cancer! I say. I’m exhausted, thanks to cancer! A twinge of pain pounds my temple. Damn cancer!
Cancer is an easy target at which to aim the arrows of anger, fear and blame. Other times, cancer is like a warm blanket to wrap myself in when I wish to hide from a cold, harsh world. Heck, the only thing I haven’t done is bronze and display it on my mantle. Probably because I don’t have a fireplace or mantle, or I might have done that too.
True, cancer is responsible for a lot that’s been and some that remains. No wonder I became habituated to being ill. Fatigue. Headaches. Insomnia. Neuropathy. And on and on it goes. This has been my norm for a long time. When many of my symptoms began to subside, it didn’t register when I slipped into a state of wellness.
On average it takes 66 days to form a new habit, give or take depending on the specific habit. Even at the upper end of the scale at 254 days, most cancer patients treat and continue to feel ill during recovery well beyond 254 days. No wonder being sick becomes ingrained in us. No wonder some of us get so used to it that we don’t see we’re well even when it creeps up on us.
I’ve had many days where I felt great, just to get smacked down after an over-zealous bout of over-activity, as if my body reminded me I’m not allowed to have fun. It put me in my place and reminded me who I really am – a sicko. Because of this, I often refrained from planning things with others. Who knew if I’d be up to it? And we all know fun is no fun when you’re not up to it.
There’s much at stake when you realize you’re no longer sick, the most noble being the threat to our bonds with others who have cancer. The identification and empathy we have with those currently in treatment and those with mets who will never be out of the woods runs deep. Those relationships have become meaningful and we don’t want to let them go, nor should we. But on an unconscious level, sometimes we hold on to the cords that bind, that which brought about the bonds we have with each other.
Sometimes there are fears about getting back into normal life. For me as a now-single person, I had not been the least bit interested in dating again. I’d been too preoccupied with survival – rebuilding my health and healing my wounded psyche. Yet as I’ve healed, I feel myself opening up to that possibility again. Relationships are what people do. That too is part of health. It’s scary to open up after being closed off for so long. I hear people talk about their relationship problems and wonder what planet they’re on. Yet, I’ve had those kinds of problems in the past and even during cancer when I was married to the Caregiver.
The real question is, what planet have I been on? It feels as though I’ve lived in a foreign country for the past few years and have had a difficult time assimilating back into my own culture. Yet, am I really so different? Don’t “regular people” have stuff to deal with? Whether it’s health or family problems or job stress, death of a loved one or loss of a job, these are all human situations that come under the greater umbrella of Challenges. Not one person escapes, even if the scope and intensity vary.
Shedding light on all of this enabled me to make an important shift. It’s not that I no longer need to massage the lymphatic swelling in my right arm. Some of my toes and fingers will always have nerve damage and the scars on my breast will never fade. The difference, though, is I’m not sick anymore. It caught me off-guard when I realized I’m okay. The cancer is in the past. Even if there were a recurrence, I can’t live in fear of something that does not exist today. Today, I am well. It might take 66 days to get used to this, but that’s a habit I’d like to take on.