End of Active Treatment: Mixed Feelings

One might assume that the end of active treatment would elicit feelings of joy and relief.  Break out the champagne and the confetti!  You've made it! 


I don't feel "done."  I still have to deal with ten years of endocrine therapy, a major reconstructive surgery, at least one revision surgery, recurrence scans every 3-6 months, physical therapy, and other follow-up appointments.  I am still experiencing side effects from treatment: menopause (from the monthly Lupron injections), joint pain (from my oral aromatase inhibitors), fatigue, inflammation from proton therapy, skin damage from radiation, lower-than-normal white blood cell counts, and memory problems (i.e. chemo brain).  My eyelashes recently fell out again (damn growth cycle!), and I'm still missing half a toenail.  I'm in the danger zone for developing lymphedema; sometimes I stare in the mirror and try to discern if my left arm is bigger than my right.  I'm also at risk for long-term side effects such as osteoporosis, secondary cancers, heart disease, and dementia.  You don't just ring the bell(s) and go back to your life before cancer. 

I will never say "I beat cancer."  I can't stand false optimism, so let's be honest here.  Young women have a higher risk of metastatic recurrence and a higher mortality rate.  Given the grade of my cancer and the level of lymph node involvement, my odds are not awesome.  I will do my best to live a healthy lifestyle and I'll drink the green tea and take the turmeric supplements, but the reality is that my cancer may return at any time. 

People constantly ask me "how are you?" and I always smile and say, "I'm good!"  But don't believe a word I say.  I used to wonder why there were so many women in my online support group who had already finished active treatment.  Now I get it.  When first diagnosed, there is a huge adrenaline rush as you are thrown into battle.  You don't have time to process.  You are busy surviving treatment and trying to hold it all together.  When treatment ends, you finally have time to look around and ask, "What the f**k just happened?!"

I made this for Jeff while painting rocks with the kids

On the plus side, I feel incredibly fortunate for having such a great support network.  Jeff is my rock, and I find his bad cancer jokes and his refusal to give me any sympathy oddly reassuring.  My parents moved to Austin literally twenty minutes after I was diagnosed.  It takes me longer to get ready for an outing to the park.  (Were they training for this?  Did they have daughter-in-crisis bags packed and ready to go?)  My friends have also been a constant presence despite the fact that most of them live far away and are busy.  The book Anti-Cancer references a study in which "women with breast cancer who could name ten friends had a four times better chance of surviving their illness," regardless of geographical proximity.  So thanks everyone!

And of course, I am excited to have fewer medical appointments and more free time.  I met a woman at the Young Survival Coalition conference who finished active treatment and immediately started a commitment to exercise.  She's exercised over 500 days in a row and counting.  Me?  I went on a Cheesy Bus Tour organized by Antonelli's Cheese Shop.  I pushed my body to its limits to find out exactly how much cheese I can eat in a single day.  Turns out I have no limits when it comes to eating cheese.  My breast may have been weak and diseased, but my stomach is invincible.