Beautifully written by Susie Du Toit
I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting this past week or so. At this time last year I was right smack in the middle of tests to find out what the malignant lump in my right breast was. I’ll be honest though…I already knew. I knew from the minute I found the lump. I knew when the chatty ultrasound tech got quiet halfway through my exam. I knew when the Dr called me first thing the next morning and wanted me in that day. I knew when the first exam at the surgeons needed three people to double check. Before there was ever a biopsy and official results, I knew.
My Mom came to stay for a month while we went through all the testing and waiting. If you’ve been through this I’m sure you remember how horrible the waiting was. So we renovated the basement! That’s what we do in my family. It was awesome and the best thing we could be doing. Getting everything ready so that the house was organized and easy for when I inevitably became sicker and unable to keep up with my three kids and their mess. We even got out hammers and took out a wall. I highly recommend it!
I got my official diagnosis on September 13th. Stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer in my right breast (Mabel aka Righty) her2+.
Susie's artful henna head
I’ll skip over the bits in between for the most part. My body handled the chemo as well as it was able. Overall I was lucky in this. My body amazed me and, while I wouldn’t jump to do it again, it went smoothly. I still felt horrible and got ALL the bone and joint pain but seriously it could have been far worse. In February, they removed Mabel (aka Righty) along with a whole whack of lymph nodes and muscle in a radical mastectomy. Radiation finished in May and that one really knocked me down for a bit. The burns were severe and incredibly painful. Again though, I am thankful every day for how my body held up. I’m proud and amazed at my body’s strength.
Now I’m all done. I’ve reached that finish line. We’ve all heard people talk about fighting cancer as if it’s a race. I know I heard it quite a bit. You just have to cross that finish line. It’s portrayed as finite. Here’s the starting line, there’s your distance and then you cross the finish line. A nice squeaky clean end.
Race isn’t the right word though. It’s more like an obstacle course with toxic sludge to swim through, then a 10 meter wall to climb and if you get that far there’s barbed wire to crawl through. When you finally, and if you’re lucky, get yourself to that finish line, you discover it’s not really a finish line at all. It’s not that nice squeaky clean end and then you move on. It’s more like a checkpoint before realizing that you now have to drag your tired, broken body another 200km to get home. Oh and by the way, when you get there you’ll have to mow the lawn before you can go inside and rest.
Point being it’s not a magic end. There is no squeaky clean when it comes to cancer. You don’t finish your treatments and walk out to live your life like nothing ever happened. Ringing that bell doesn’t wipe the slate clean, it only starts a new chapter. Fighting cancer changes you. When you finish treatment you feel this incredible relief, thankfulness, and determination. You also leave with fear, scars, and sadness.
Susie and her hubby Will
There is a lot of healing that needs to happen when you walk away from that last treatment. Both physical and emotional. There’s also enormous pressure (mostly internal!) to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. For some people (ok…maybe me) it’s hard to give yourself permission to not be exactly who you were before. To not be able to instantly do everything you could before. To not, in a sense, go back in time to when this wasn’t even something you could imagine going through.
For the most part that also applies to the world around you. It’s easy for the people in your life to forget that your body has been through that nasty obstacle course. Especially if, like me, you push yourself to be as “normal” as you can. It’s a bit of a cycle that way. The more you force yourself to be the way you were, the more people treat you the way they did before, which makes you try even harder to be the way you were…and so on and so on.
I think the trick is to let all that crap light a fire in you. To look at all the things in your life that you’ve been saying “Yeah, I’ll do that one day…probably” and get doing it. Because I may live a happy healthy sixty more years without seeing this bastard again…but I might not. There’s no guarantee that it will stay gone although my likelihood of recurrence is very low. I, for one, have no intention of being caught off guard by any other obstacle in my life thinking, “I really should have done that earlier” or “I wish I hadn’t put that off until I can’t".
It also has a tendency to reset your priorities. Things that seemed important before, when there was no reason to think I didn’t have all the time in the world, just aren’t as important any more. I have less patience for those things in my life that created stress. Whether it was other people, or my own internal pressures. As a rule I have always put others needs before my own. I didn’t take the time to look after myself and make myself a priority. I always assumed I would have time to take care of myself later. Once the kids were older, after retirement…later. When you’re suddenly confronted with the idea of there not being a later, it can really shake your perspective on life.
Susie surrounded by her awesome family
So while I still work on getting used to this new me, with it’s new shape and challenges (I’m looking at you lymphedema) I’m making a point of making some changes. I’m not waiting for things to happen in my life, I’m making them happen. I’m not allowing everyday stress to weigh me down. I’m speaking my mind when before I would have just kept it to myself. I’m taking the time to make myself a priority. I’m finding the silver linings.
A final note on all this, if you know someone who’s been through cancer treatment, give them a hug and remember that it’s over…but it’s also never completely over.
Susie raises her three amazing kids (11, 7, and 5) with her husband Will. She makes quilts (and toy monsters, dolls and other things) to relax and unwind. She is a glass half full kind of person and always strives to see the best in the world around her. She believes there is always good in everything if you look for it.