You know that saying “You can get used to just about anything”? I’ve been living it lately as I adjust to my new life. I’ve gotten used to pretty much all of it since our annual idyllic pilgrimage to Sanibel Island was decimated by the discovery of a lump. We were all there, standing next to the pool we’ve visited for the past ten years when I first saw it. It was 11:00 a.m. Monday, March 25, 2002. It took only twelve hours to learn that the lump was a tumor and the tumor was cancer.
“I don’t know how I never noticed it before,” I said to the ER doctor in Florida who first diagnosed it.
“It grows up in the rib cage then when it gets so heavy it drops down and ‘boom’ you notice it.”
It took some getting used to the whole idea of cancer. It doesn’t run in our families. Not that no one has had it but until now no one under the age of eighty has had it. That’s a whole different thing isn’t it? Getting cancer when you’re nearing the end of your life is one thing. Getting it now is unthinkable. Sometimes I know my parents are thinking that. Thinking, “Why is this happening to her and not me? I’m the one who’s lived a long full life.”
Despite the shock it caused us all, you do get somewhat accustomed to living with it and being able to talk about it. I’ve noticed I’m much more casual about throwing the big “C” word around in conversation. At first, when I’d run into friends and neighbors I’d just say, “Well, there was a tumor on the kidney. They had to remove the kidney but the other one will compensate for it.” Now I just say, “Yeah, it’s cancer.”
At the same time I was trying to get used to the idea of cancer I had to write down the chemotherapy appointments on the family calendar. This was not easy to do. It was that first week after the surgery and I had to cross out “Gymnastics” and write in “Chemotherapy” for the next ten Fridays. My sister, who had come to help us out, found me crying over the calendar.
“I can’t do it. It’s just too hideous,” I said.
“Just write the word ‘Cure’ instead,” she suggested as she held me. I did. But now I can write “Chemotherapy” as easily as I write “Class Picnic”.
There are other things you have to get used to. There’s the port, a device about the size of a stack of three nickels that they inserted surgically just under the skin below the clavicle. They use this so they don’t have to fish around for a vein every time they draw blood or administer chemotherapy. It’s a useful device but one I was unaware existed until three months ago.
It took a little longer to get used to the box in the refrigerator behind the pickle relish that reads, “Caution: Toxic chemotherapy”. The visiting nurse uses it for the times we don’t have to go into the city for treatments. At first it was rather startling to see the Styrofoam box in there when you’d go in the fridge to grab a yogurt. But I barely notice it now.
There are the physical changes to adjust to like the inevitable hair loss that goes along with chemotherapy. I’m not so bothered by it now. It’s been fairly gradual. It’s almost all gone but I keep rearranging the last two wisps in denial and desperation like a middle-aged man with a horrendous comb-over. I just brush it out several times a day so I won’t find piles of it accumulating in the corners trying to mock me.
I’ve gotten used to the scar too, which runs from just below the nipple to the pelvis. I remember asking the surgeon, “Will it be a large incision?”
“Yes,” she answered unflinchingly. There were a lot of unflinching answers to our questions that first week. “Will there be chemo?” “Will the hair fall out?” “Will it be a long surgery?” Yes, yes, yes.
But I barely notice the scar now. Today I forgot about it completely until I saw a look of horror in a visitor’s eyes when I answered the door while I held Lilly in my arms. I quickly threw a shirt on over the bathing suit to cover it up.
We’re all getting used to this new life. My husband is back at work, back to normal. Of course he was there in the hospital the whole time and for the first few treatments but then I said, “Look, you have to go back to work and let me handle this like it’s just another doctor’s visit. For all our sakes we have to get back to normal.” So he went back reluctantly.
The kids are all pretty used to it. They know they need to get off the bus at the neighbor’s house on the days we go downtown for chemo. They use the terminology like chemo and radiation comfortably and knowledgably. Not that you want your eight, seven, and four year old children to have to have a working knowledge of cancer treatments. But when it’s in the family what can you do? The denial and secrecy that surrounded cancer in our youth served no one well. So we try to be open about it and answer any of their questions.
Still, it’s unnerving to hear your four-year-old say to her playmate, “I have cancer.” Or more accurately , “I have cansuh” since she still has her preschooler lisp. Yes, it’s Lilly, my baby who has cancer. And though I’m used to a lot of it; the worries, the meals from sympathetic neighbors, the hats piling up in her bedroom, the endless waiting in doctors’ offices, the curious stares at the little balding head, I am not used to waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, “My baby has cancer.” And I don’t think I will ever get used to that.
by Judy Zimmerman