MY NEW NORMAL
I just had one of my regular CT scans. I get the test every four months to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back. I wouldn’t want to wait any longer between scans even though they usher in a week of anxiety while I wait for the results.
It’s a scary, nervous time that everyone who’s had cancer treatment is familiar with. It begins before the appointment when I start to dread drinking the sickly sweet barium drink that will help light up my insides. Much as I hate it, it’s never quite as bad as I expect. But the worry just gets worse. Every tiny twinge in my gut makes me wonder: “Is it back?” The problem is, since I received life-saving surgery, I have had very many of those twinges. And fretting for a week never helps anyone’s digestion. The odds say the longer I go without a recurrence, the better my chances are. But the more time I log feeling hale and healthy, the more I dread going back there — to Cancerland.
What bothers me most is a sense that I haven’t used this time well. Or not well enough. When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than two years ago, it was an almost certain death sentence. It made everything very clear — what was important and what wasn’t, what I could do with my remaining time and what I couldn’t. I wanted to focus on my family and my friends. I realized I was too sick to try to accomplish anything more in the professional realm. It was too late for that, and that was okay.
Finding myself cancer-free six months later was a huge, wonderful surprise. It was an incredible reprieve. Surely it meant I had to do something special. But what? “I feel like I should be in the basement splitting the atom,” I would joke with my husband. “But it’s already been done.” It’s a strangely adolescent kind of pressure that mostly makes me feel like I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And I don’t have a lot of time to figure it out. But the longer I feel fine, the more these questions recede.
The other thing that comes from a brush with death is the realization that every day is a gift. I can just take pleasure in a summer evening in the garden with my husband or a productive day at work. The Vancouver-based punk rocker Bif Naked says this can also be a burden. She was diagnosed with breast cancer two and a half years ago at the age of 36, just two weeks after her honeymoon. She has a lot in common with the women she met in her chemotherapy unit. “It’s so funny how we beat ourselves up and berate ourselves and feel guilty if we forget for one minute that we need to be grateful every minute,” she told me. “We can’t get upset with the kids or the dog or the husband. We can’t get upset when we’re driving. On top of the regular beating-up for things like gaining a few pounds, there’s that thing that tells us: ‘Shame on you! You should be grateful every day.’ ”
If that thing doesn’t tell me, my husband certainly will. After a recent dinnertime harangue about ridiculous construction delays and wasted trips to big box stores for products that turned out to be broken, he asked: “Do you realize how much you’re complaining?” That would be the old normal, and there’s nothing that can dislodge it like an impending CT scan.