I say sort of because I completed one of the drugs (I’ll call it drug one) I need to take to kill any breast cancer cells still hanging out in my body, but I still have another drug (drug two) to receive every three weeks for another nine months.
Early on in this process, I asked my oncologist’s nurse practitioner when it would be accurate to say that chemo was over: do I call it concluded when the twelve weekly sessions of drug one finished, or do I wait until the infusions for drug two are done in early 2017? The answer to this question was so important; I was facing the very scary reality of a cancer diagnosis, and I wanted it all to go away. As much as I willed it, I couldn’t make the cancer disappear, so the next best option was to wish for each treatment phase to be over as quickly as possible. I was slowly grasping the idea that, in the world of a cancer patient, treatment milestones are a powerful way to keep yourself positive and hopeful. They are a life raft of a kind. The nurse practitioner, thankfully, understood what was behind my inquiry. She was adamant that, after the twelve rounds of drug one (plus a few rounds of drug two), I could say chemo was behind me. I embraced the permission her words gave me, circling May 16 as “the last day of chemo!” on my calendar, marking it as one of the many cancer finish lines I’ll cross.
With some distance, I can accept that chemo could have been much, much worse. I was exhausted and out of sorts, but I wasn’t as debilitated as I had feared I would be. I was still able to walk my kids to school and be present in their lives – goals from life BC (BC = before cancer) that were critical to me. But I wouldn’t wish the experience of chemo on anyone. I detested drug one. Research may show that it’s the best treatment for my kind of breast cancer, but every bad side effect I experienced – loss of hair and the ability to sleep through the night, nausea, acne, weight gain, and exhaustion – could be attributed to it. I counted the weeks and days until that phase of my treatment was over. Fuck you drug one, I often said. You might be helping me, but you could have been a lot nicer.
Surprisingly, ending chemo was anti-climactic. I thought I’d feel jubilant or excited; maybe there would be fireworks or a special dance performed by the chemo nurses. Instead, it was a typical day at the hospital with my husband by my side. At the end of my infusion, my nurse removed my IV, smiled, and said, “You’re done!” We hugged, I gathered up my stuff, and my husband and I left. It all felt normal – like any other day (any other day with a cancer diagnosis that is). My husband and I did celebrate, though – with a delicious carrot cake from Whole Foods (if a cancer diagnosis does anything, it gives you permission to have cake whenever you want). I went to bed early that night, and after a week of recuperating, started back at the stuff of life that healthy people take for granted. I know I did in my BC days. The list wasn’t even what you’d call outrageous: I went two weeks without a medical appointment. I went for long walks. I watched my daughter learn how to hurdle at track practice. I cheered on my son during a lacrosse scrimmage. I met friends for tea and enjoyed the sunshine. I reveled in feeling slightly better, though I’m still waiting to feel completely like myself; that will take a long time.
In the middle of the post-chemo lull, when all I wanted were more normal life events, I faced another ending. The house my family lived in for thirty years is on track to be sold later this month, and my husband and I – with incredible help from my mother’s friends – did our final massive house clean out. I said good bye to the home my parents built, to the last place I saw my father alive, to the spot where my husband proposed, to the dining room where we had numerous Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and to the backyard where family and friends gathered for BBQs and celebrations. I dreaded every moment of the process of closing out our ownership of that house. Yet it was cathartic and became a productive way to deal with my grief over losing my mom. And I realized – while emptying out closets and kitchen cabinets – that endings – whether they are the conclusion of medical treatment or selling a beloved house – can bring lessons and opportunities.
From chemo, I learned about kindness – the amazing kindness of friends and family near and far away, who supported me and cheered me on. From selling my mom’s house, I understood that our sense of home and of belonging doesn’t have to be tied to a specific place. We can find it in people and in memories, and we can create it as we move along through life, through the very good times and the depths of sadness as well.
There’s more to learn ahead; after all, we grow through adversity, don’t we? The inspiration for those lessons, though, will be very thankfully fueled by something other than chemo.