The intangible things that I learned from breast cancer are endless.
I found deep reserves of strength that I never knew I had.
I had to have 16 chemo treatments. Driving in the car, on the way to the hospital, I’d start mentally preparing myself for that days drip. The nurses get you in, settle you into a chair, find a vein, hook you up and then you sit there for about 3 or 4 hours, as the chemo slowly drips into your system. It’s not really that terrible or painful (other than finding a usable vein), but the process becomes wearing, or at least it was for me.
Over time, I began to realize that I had reserves of strength that I would never have imagined. In the car on the way, I’d start to do deep breathing, and focus myself, mentally prepare myself so that I could deal with it. One thing I was conscious of was how people around me would react. I didn’t want to frighten my kids or Mike. I didn’t want the nurse(s) who were treating me, to worry too much. I wanted them to know that I was ok, and that I knew they were doing their best to make this as easy for me as possible. They do this every day; stick needles into patients veins and administer IV drips of toxic chemicals for hours, always with smiles and compassion and humor. I could never do what they do. I wanted them to know that I appreciated them, and that I was strong enough that they didn’t have to worry about me.
I found a far deeper sense of compassion for others going through physical or emotional pain, than I ever felt before.
I’ve always been pretty stalwart; it’s my German/Irish/Catholic upbringing. When someone got sick in our family when I was growing up, it was always pretty much: let’s get on with it, don’t slouch about, just get better and no complaints. Since this process has taken so long, I’ve had a taste of what chronic illness must feel like. I don’t think that I’ll ever look at it the same way again.
Chronic illness leads to depression. There’s no question in my mind. A few years ago, I read a book called Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy, a young Irish poet. She had jaw cancer as a young child and had to have her face reconstructed through multiple painful and mostly unsuccessful surgeries. She lived her life in chronic pain and became addicted to OxyContin and codeine, and eventually died of an overdose at 39. When I read it a few years ago, I was so un-empathetic. After this year, I think I have a glimpse of how terribly difficult her life was, and I can understand her despair. I only had a year of this, she lived with it for 30 years.
I deepened my relationship with my children.
This last year they’ve seen my weakness, as well as my strength. I’m more honest with them. I share my fears more openly with them, but also my joy and my optimism. I don’t look for, or even expect the “big moments,” the aha’s.
I’ve learned to relish the teeniest little moment with them: how excited they are to get a snow day; the intimacy of when they share one of their favorite new youtube videos with me; the little tidbits of school gossip they share with me; the discussion with my teen son when he actuallly took my advice about what to use to get rid of his first zit outbreak (Neutrogena, of course).
Wasn’t it John Lennon who said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” And I’m trying to notice life happening, instead of being busy making those other plans.
There are so many more intangibles. These are enough for today.