I often read about someone’s cancer experience in terms of before and after cancer. I also often read that there is no after for those living with metastatic breast cancer because we will always be in treatment. Extreme outliers push what is possible. They keep living with cancer year after year. People living with metastatic disease need words that aren’t in terms of before or after.
I prefer during, now, and next.
A Brief Look at Before Cancer
Before cancer was a golden time of no worries. People lived with no physical limitations. They had job security and careers stretching out ahead of them. Dreams were plentiful and ranged from travel, starting families, professional accomplishments, and personal goals. Normal life expectancies were part of the plan. Life was busy with many friends. Five-year plans were achievable and plans were made for the future without doubting the future.
I felt as others did.
Life was good then. I knew it, but I didn’t realize how good I had it.
I didn’t know the meaning of a bad hair day.
I liked October.
Thoughts About After Cancer
For many, after cancer means getting back to normal, returning to work, growing hair, and putting cancer forever in the past. Survivors post side-by-side photos of their cancer days when they were bald next to photos of a year post treatment when they feel they are once and for all done with cancer where it no longer looks like they ever had cancer.
Life after cancer may mean changes in diet and exercise. Maybe there are new considerations for returning to work or career changes. Life may bring changes in income, changes in health insurance, and changes with how bodies look. There are some who reclaim their past and work to make their life after cancer as much like their before cancer life as possible. For some it means continued support groups, giving back to cancer organizations, and participating in other ways to make a difference in the cancer community.
October becomes a month to celebrate the wonderful and misleading world of awareness. A few reminisce about their cancer days almost as if they were remembering summer camp or a crazy story from high school. I figure it’s easy to reminisce when you are on the other side and treatment is done. There are plenty who see cancer far in their past and it doesn’t affect day-to-day life one bit.
Before cancer is only a memory. After cancer is in the present. After cancer is the future.
It’s a strong possibility I would feel the same if I were in their shoes, but I’m not. I don’t know what it’s like to be “cancer free” as they say. I think it’s the same as how someone without cancer doesn’t know what it’s like for someone with cancer. Those of us with cancer don’t even completely understand what it’s like for another person with cancer. We come close. We can identify and empathize with emotional and physical pain. I have been fortunate to connect with many who write exactly what I feel. I think of these people as my friends even though I haven’t met them.
After cancer means returning to normal or the so called new normal. In my opinion there is no normal or new normal. I describe my life as a new abnormal and wrote about it in an earlier post you can read here.
It’s hard for me to remember my before cancer days. It feels like another lifetime. I have grieved those days as I would a person. Grief resurfaces with some memories of the past. My eyes water lately when looking at old photos. Who was that person that used to be me? It was someone with dreams that have been shattered.
Even photos from childhood cause some sadness.
Teaching was a huge part of my adult life. I am so far away from those days now that it’s hard to remember elements that were driving forces. So many faces have changed where I taught.
Even some memories of my mom, dad, and grandma have drifted almost too far away. I hate that and I miss them.
What was it like to have boundless energy? What was it like to see my future?
I can’t remember.
The world of before is out of reach.
During, Now, and Next
Good words I use to mark time are during, now, and next.
During is like an umbrella held over now and next. It’s all the time from diagnosis onward. It includes a lot of enduring cancer related life like scans, labs, other tests, office visits, treatments, and waiting. Too much time is filled with enduring cancer when treatment days, side effects, and large chunks of time filled with anxieties or sadness take hold. Instead of after cancer I have an undefined during.
During cancer isn’t all bad. I still taught for four years during cancer. Many are able to keep working. I still live independently. I am still active. I still take vacations (just not presently). Many do all these things, too. Many retire and tell others they finally get to do whatever they want because there is no schedule to keep or boss in charge. I don’t do whatever I want because my health can get in the way, but I try. Living well while living with cancer is possible.
During cancer is a time where nothing ever lasts. I’ve lived in this time labeled during so long that I feel like my life before cancer was lived by an entirely different person.
At my core I still have the same values and main personality traits. Cancer has exaggerated some of them. I have more anxieties and more sensitivities. I am quick to cry. Heck, I’ve cried writing this post. I am more intense and more driven which I possibly could attribute to aging and becoming more confident. I put more emphasis on hope and kindness. I can still crack a joke in the midst of personal misery.
Now is an excellent word. Living in the now enables me to focus on the present moment. I appreciate my wildflowers. I listen to the rumble of thunder. I walk barefoot in the grass. I drink refreshing pink lemonade. Now is where I find joy, hope, and positivity. I work hard not to let anything crush my sense of now. I try to enjoy each day. There is always something. Waking up to greet a new day and gratefully closing my eyes to dream at night are bookends for every day.
Now is the present. Savoring the moment when moments are good stretch out my enjoyment. I savor my breakfast. I savor walks in nature when I’m surrounded by trees and see the sun shining though the leaves. I savor gentle breezes on my skin. I savor laughing and feeling loved. None of these moments can be bottled. They can be replicated as often as possible. Many moments living in the now make up a day. It’s where I live when days are good. Those days add up. I am very lucky for the now I have carved out and the now where I live. Now is all I really have. It’s all any of us truly have.
Living my life involves multiple treatment plans. The word next comes into play when I switch to the next treatment. It also applies to my next cycle of whatever current drug I’m receiving. My treatment visits number into the hundreds. Life is filled with more worries and anxieties. I worry I’ll never again have hair when I’m without it. I worry I’ll soon lose it when I have it. It’s one of my big current worries.
Next is my future. I think about next week or next month. I think about my next piece of writing. I think about what I want to work on next with my trainer and my next physical goal. I have goals for next year. I cautiously make plans knowing they may change. I make them with the intention they will happen. I even think long term because that is energy I want the universe to have. I envision a positive and healthy future because I’m not willing to give up dreaming of my future. It may not be the future I planned before cancer, but it is mine now.
I apologize if this all sounds a bit disjointed. These markers in time are fluid and won’t hold still. Referring to words as nouns that usually function as other parts of speech may not come across in the way I hope they do. Living during metastatic breast cancer means living in an ongoing state of flux. I need sets of words to help mark different spots in the spaces where I live. During, now, and next are working well for me.