For my cancer friends out there who may have just received a dire diagnosis or are in the process of treatment, I thought I would catch you up on my health since finishing treatment in June of 2014.
It may be helpful to hear one person’s experience on cancer recovery just so you have at least a singular reference on the “after.”
First, a little history. I had an inoperable fast-growing malignant brain tumor called a “Medulloblastoma” in my right cerebellum. My main symptom was epic dizziness and loss of balance and motor skills (the cerebellum regulates motor movement). Following many tests that culminated with a brain biopsy, by brain surgeon said there was no cure and that oncologists would try to buy me a couple of years, but I could die within the month.
After the initial shock, I learned I actually had a 60 percent chance of survival. And so began a year of treatment that included proton radiation and chemotherapy. Obviously I lived or this Tumblr would be super-creepy. Though I still get MRIs every six months and there are no signs that the tumor is alive, I wasn’t properly prepared for “What next?”.
My doctors told me all sorts of unnerving things, like, I might die, or if I didn’t die, I might never get my hair back, or I would have no short-term memory, or I would go into sudden menopause, or I would never get my balance back.
It got to the point where I was almost more scared of life after cancer than I was of hosting a bomb in my brain. I’m hear to tell ya, the post-treatment warnings were true – to a certain extent, but time becomes your best friend.
My first year after treatment I was still wildly fatigued. As one medical professional explained to me, chemo stays in the body for a good year, wreaking havoc on any hope of returning to life as I knew it. I remained in a static state of inactivity, sleeping most of one year on a sofa with my two dogs. I could no longer muster the energy and determination to return to my project of making a third film. And the thought of exercising sent me into guilty fits over my passivity.
My short-term’ memory was simply gone. I would meet people over and over and still have no idea who they were. I missed appointments on a daily basis because I could not keep an accurate calendar. I’d tell people I’d do something only to find out I never did it because, I forgot.
My feet and hands and scalp ached from nerve damage caused by the chemo.
I went into immediate menopause, which carries a host of side affects.
My hair did grow back, but very very slowly. More than three years later, my hair has barely grown enough for a short bob.
And most irritatingly, I’m still a little dizzy. I can’t close my eyes while standing still or look up or sideways while walking. For a while there, I couldn’t run or jump or skip or stand on one leg or ride a bike or really do anything of a physical nature.
But, I’m here to tell you, these things do return, albeit at a snail’s pace. With the help of a personal trainer I am improving my balance. I’m still forgetful, but it’s not nearly so debilitating now. My extremities don’t constantly hurt anymore. My menopause didn’t subside, but my gynecologist has helped me ease that little nightmare.
Though I’m still fatigued, an afternoon nap gets me through the day and helps me regain some vim and vigor.
I guess what I want to say is, if you’re going through this or have gone through it, take heart in the fact that there is life after cancer. I still don’t feel like my former self, but I feel … good. There are times where I feel my toes are still in the after-life. I mean, once you confront your mortality it’s not easy to say, “OK. Back to life. Now where were we?”. My dreams are different. I am definitely less interested in the daily shenanigans of forging ahead and changing the world. I’m just a lot, I don’t know, softer? Disengaged? Unfocused? I’ve spoken to other survivors who feel the same. You don’t necessarily get to return to your former self. But out of the ashes you rise with a newfound wisdom and — as corny as this sounds — a deeper empathy for the world and its many tribulations. It’s like, your heart and soul expand and the world becomes a sadder but more beautiful place.
Children, animals, dogs, past loves, even plants and every bird around takes on a spiritual depth that perhaps I couldn’t appreciate before cancer because I was on the go, chasing the dream, keeping up with the Joneses. Dare I say, I think the experience yields a gift of patience and expanded love and, meh, wisdom. Dumber, but wiser.
Good luck with your recovery. Acknowledge what you’ve gone through. Appreciate the new you. And be thankful for every breath you take.