What does having cancer feel like? (It ain't pretty)
Sometimes, I forget. It’s usually around 3 a.m., while sleeping in bed. I’m wrapped in my favorite gray-and-blue threadbare blanket, dreaming that I’m back in my 20s – full of energy, sporting some unabashed red lipstick and waistless.
Then, I get a punch in the gut.
I jump up and claw my way to the bathroom. Sometimes there’s a dramatic scene, with heaves and fluids and tears. Sometimes it’s just sitting on the cold toilet seat with a dull stare.
Then, I face the mirror. Staring back is an ashen, brown face with a bald head and dull eyes that have only a smattering of lashes left. That’s when I remember: I have cancer.
For me, it’s been like wearing a large, weighted coat that drags the floor. No matter the weather, no matter the place, I cannot remove it. It digs into my shoulders and pushes my feet into the ground.
It’s hot on the inside of it, and it doesn’t match with any of my clothes, but I must wear it — this backbreaking, suffocating cloak called cancer.
The magnitude of being inside of it makes my heart race, and I want to run down the street screaming while trying to rip it from my body. But my feet, my legs, my thighs, my arms are all gripped with fatigue and moving them feels like an impossible feat against gravity.
And as the weeks of all the funny-named chemo drugs build up in my body, it often feels like rolling acid is bubbling in my gut. It’s a constant churning, turning and stirring, eventually making me drunk with nausea.
I taste it, and it makes my favorite foods, like homestyle guacamole and hard-fried catfish, taste like slime and crunchy sand.
Some days, while in bed, as I try to find a comfortable groove in my mattress, I hear my kids upstairs running along the floor, playing and laughing. I smile, but then it quickly falls. Life goes on, and sometimes the thought of that mocks me.
I want to hit a pause button so that I can process, mourn, reflect, reboot, but there’s not a lot of time. The bills are still due, work deadlines are looming, back-to-school preparations need to be made...
And, a part of me doesn’t want to be around my parents. I see the worry in their eyes and, for some sick reason, it makes me feel like a failure.
At work, I try to smile and focus and smile and focus. I never go more than a few feet without my little peacock-print purse of lemon drops, ginger chews and disposable “sickness” bag. I often have to run to the office restroom and hope the ladies in the stalls don’t see, hear or...smell.
My darkened fingernails and blotchy skin have caused all my vanity to dissolve into a puddle beneath my feet. (Even mentioning that makes me feel vain.)
Unfortunately, I know my kids are wearing their own little cloaks now, too.
If my son hears me coughing in the bathroom, he sprints to the door and asks, “Mommy, are you OK? Are you sick?” I tell him that I am fine, but he sits at the door and waits and listens.
My daughter tells me she loves me ten thousand times a day and I catch her staring at me while holding in her tears.
It makes me live in the moment, though. I grab their little cheeks and speak to them while looking directly into their brown eyes. I want to memorize their faces so that when this sickness makes me want to fall back, I remember why I cannot.
And...it’s not all bad. It’s definitely not. There are days when I am so aware of the gift of life that I just sit in gratefulness. I stare out the window and look at God's creation and I MARVEL.
Some days, I feel a little like myself again. I laugh out loud with friends, watch too much reality TV, find new foods to enjoy. I even – every now and then – put on some shade of lipstick (not too daring a color, though) and catch myself swaying a little like I used to— even while wearing this "coat."
And the people…
At a recent meeting with the directors at my job, my boss beckoned for all twenty-four of us to come to the front of the room where we were meeting. I thought we were about to participate in another team building exercise (enter: eye roll...LOL).
Suddenly, they were all looking at me as he mentioned how they ALL are standing with me on this journey. Then, all of them surrounded me and gave me a big bear hug as I wept. It was like a shot of five-hour energy of love being directly deposited into my bones.
That is what this journey has been like, too: a whole community of people surrounding me to lift me up, with calls, cards, Kombucha, prayers, notes. It makes carrying this cloak a little lighter.
I know this is a marathon. After chemo, there is a mastectomy, after that is radiation, then reconstruction and yet even more chemo. But, each day, I get dressed, I put on my itchy headscarf and drag this darn cloak, but know its days are numbered.