Going through cancer treatments and recovery changed me in so many ways. I thought I understood what it would be like, but I was wrong.
I had been there for family members as they underwent surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation - but being the supporter and not the patient allowed me to maintain a veil of separation. Being in the hot-seat, that's no longer an option.
During each treatment phase I was forced to look at the disease straight on and accept that it was a part of my life. But with all that reality came a coping mechanism that numbed my emotions and caused memories to fade almost as quickly as they were generated. I was truly living in the present moment, because that was all I could handle.
Each time we made the trip, I felt myself receding as we covered the miles to OHSU. After my initial appointment, I knew what lay ahead. Appointments usually included several white-coat-clad people in the room who were there to observe and sometimes examine me. My personal space was violated from the cheery nurse who asked me to step on the scale in a hallway to the probing questions, mammograms, procedures and ultrasounds.
My sense of modesty and embarrassment at having total strangers examine my breasts was inconsequential. I quickly figured out it was easier to ignore my feelings and just let it happen. I had no control.
Some of the medical students were just as embarrassed as I was; others used nervous humor to lighten the tension, looking at me hopefully to see if I would play along. Sometimes I could, sometimes tears ran down my face, betraying how alone and mortified I felt.
Hotel stays before and after surgeries and long drives under sedation became our way of life. Less-than-optimal results in surgeries and mishandled communication about them made me trust my doctors less and less. I was always waiting for the next misstep, while desperately hoping for good news.
Through it all Gary, our dear friend Susan and I did our best to keep a sense of humor and try to stay positive. Now, over a year later, I'm just beginning to allow the full measure of that experience to set in. That's when another wonderful blessing appeared to help me start the process.
St. Charles Cancer Center is doing a great job offering classes, support groups and resources to help patients both during and after cancer treatment. When I saw that Ellen Waterston was offering a writing class for cancer patients, I jumped at the chance. The class was for six weeks and was offered free. I wanted to take a writing class from Waterston for years. I owned several of her books and admired the nonprofit she founded, Nature of Words.
The class was filled to capacity with a diverse group of cancer survivors, all in different stages of recovery. Ellen gave us writing prompts designed to encourage creativity and the tools to tell our stories. I found that the more I wrote the more I began to remember. My mind had blocked so much of what I'd been through, it was hard to remember conversations, important treatment dates and a whole myriad of intense experiences. I had to rely on Gary and friends who had walked the journey with me to fill in the details.
I found that the writing began a mental healing just as important as my physical renewal. Before I could complete an assignment, I often had to allow myself the time to write about forgotten emotions and traumatic times. Sometimes, a particular experience would percolate up and I would have to fill a page with words that described my feelings. Ellen taught us to write descriptive words out on a page and then go back and circle the ones that jumped out at us. From there, I was inspired to write a poem that got to the heart of the memory. I was slowly releasing hidden thoughts I didn't know were there.
I am committed to using writing as a tool in my recovery kit. Mining my psyche through self-expression and allowing my imagination to flow in a manageable way gives me a sense of control. I'm taking the initiative to face the tough times so I can move through and past them. Each day, I whittle away a bit more to reveal what I've been through and the person I'm becoming. For me, writing is a form of meditation, release and creative expression.
I'm so thankful to the people and resources that are helping me to heal and move beyond cancer.