by Mary Sand
Seven miles outside of Grand Forks, North Dakota, on I-29 South, is a billboard, advertising a state college, that says “The Power of the Journey.” I noticed it last July on my first visit to the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve passed by it since then. All I know is those words have made a lasting impact. Whenever I see that billboard, I’m reminded that I’m on a journey; it’s powerful, and it’s going to be long.
I had scheduled my yearly mammogram at Sanford Health in Fargo, the first week in July, because Sanford had the new 3D mammography machine, which we didn’t have here in town. Because I’ve had four breast biopsies on various lumps and bumps, I thought the new 3D test would be perfect for me, to rule out anything.
I drove down to Fargo, had the mammogram, and the next day received a phone call that I needed to come in for a follow-up. Fine, I’ve been down this road before. Except this time, instead of the ultrasound technician saying, “OK, you can get dressed. You’ll get a letter in the mail,” which I now know is code for “everything is A-OK,” she said, “I want you to stay there; I’m going to go get a doctor.” Which I now know is code for “You’re screwed.” When the technician left the room, I walked over to the monitor and looked at a white blob that I knew was cancer.
When you’re told you have breast cancer, you leave your body for a minute.
You go numb. You don’t cry. Not at first. I started shaking and got very, very, very cold, as if I had just walked into a deep freezer. And then you start the next phase of your journey. You return for biopsies, more mammograms, and you wait.
And you keep going every day. And you thank God for helping you find the strength you didn’t think you had.
And as you make countless trips down I-29, meeting your surgeon, your radiologist, your oncologist, having your surgery, a lumpectomy, starting your chemo, you realize that time has not stopped as you thought it would. You look out your window and remember how the first time you traveled this road, construction was going on. It seemed to last all summer. Now the road is complete. You notice the sunflower field that had baby shoots coming out of the ground in July is now in full bloom, black and yellow bonnets facing the bright sun.
You get through chemo one.
I won’t sugar coat it – this is hard. My hair hurts. Each follicle on my head is slowly dying, and I’m told this is my body preparing for my hair to fall out. My food, what little I can eat now, tastes like metal. My acid reflux, which I haven’t had for a good year, has returned. My joints ache. I’ve lost 19 pounds. The list goes on.
So, what have I learned after this first chemo?
- I’m never again taking for granted a day when I feel entirely normal. I long for normalcy.
- When your oncology team tells you that, on day four, the pain will kick in, they aren’t kidding.
- Strawberry popsicles are the best.
- Crackers, water, yogurt, toast, and bananas are my best friends. And Kaopectate.
- My husband is the best person in the entire world, hands down.
- Daily meditation is key.
- My chemo nurses deserve every single, solitary penny they can get.
You get through chemo two.
During very hard moments, when I think that I simply cannot endure my bone pain one more minute, I re-read all the cards, emails, and texts that have been sent to me. The positive messages are what push me through.
I’ve developed a serious complication this time around, a large blood clot in my jugular vein. I must give myself shots in my stomach twice a day for months. It will pass, but it will take time. In August, I had to miss my nephew’s wedding. And then I had to take a leave of absence from work. But it’s all part of my journey.
So, what have I learned after this second chemo?
- Love is your husband buying you a baby toothbrush because your regular one is too painful to use. It’s him wrapping you in a blanket and helping you into a lawn chair he’s set up next to his garden so you can feel the warmth of the sun while he digs potatoes. Love is your husband kissing your bald head and telling you you’re beautiful.
- Gifts come in unexpectedly beautiful ways – a gas card given to me by a social worker, a friend dropping off eight freezer meals.
- I’ve learned what is important and what isn’t.
- I have learned to appreciate my cancer sisters. As I wait each time to be called into chemo, I can’t help but to think of the week ahead, of lying in bed in a fetal position for the next few days, of not being able to eat, of not sleeping, of the horrible nausea. But the last time I sat there, silently brooding, I heard a voice say, “Hey, where did you get your scarf? I really like it.” I got up, walked over to my cancer sister, a complete stranger, and we compared notes on which catalogs we order our head coverings from, we compared chemo, we compared treatments. I learned I wasn’t alone.
- Cancer centers all over the country have bells. After you finish your final chemo treatment, you ring the bell. And it’s a big thing. A really big thing. I focus on that bell every single time I sit in the waiting room listening for my name to be called. One day, I will ring that bell. I will jump up and down; I will holler; I will cry; I will take off my headscarf and be proud of my bald head. Ringing that bell will signify that I can begin the final phase of my journey, nearly a month of daily radiation treatments.
You get through chemo three.
Another chemo. Another trip down I-29. It’s become routine. My chemo bag, packed with things to read, test results to talk over with my oncologist, and my journal, goes in the backseat, along with my chemo blanket, which keeps me warm during treatment. We pull out of the driveway into the pitch-black dark, early morning. I imagine alarms beeping in the houses we pass, announcing the arrival of another day. I think of the normal routines going on inside, moms waking kids for school, making breakfast, packing lunches, dogs barking, rushing, rushing, rushing to get out the door on time. Normalcy. Chaos. Normalcy. I miss my old normal. I have a new normal now.
… you realize that time has not stopped as you thought it would.
I sit down in the chemo waiting area. Removing my head covering, I start getting ready for my four-hour treatment, eating my crackers, drinking my water. As someone who’s struggled my entire life with low self-esteem, I’m amazed at how comfortable I’ve become being completely bald. I’ve never felt more beautiful in my life. As my body changes, every day, I feel more confident.
As I sit and watch the poison run out the IV bag, down the tubing, and into my arm, my thoughts run wild –
- When someone tells you they have cancer, don’t say “Call me if you need anything.” I’m not going to call you. I don’t have the energy.
- When you’re nauseated, my sister-in-law’s strawberry freezer jam has a stomach-settling effect.
- During your first chemo round, you’re terrified beyond terror. You sit and wait for your head to spin in a 360-degree circle while spewing pea soup. Which obviously doesn’t happen. At least not during chemo. It tends to happen later.
- One day, this will be but a memory. A part of my past, yet a part of my life that is so important. I hope I can look back on this with humbleness, with remembrance, and without fear.
Normalcy comes and goes. Finding that new normal is always a challenge. Before the flood, after the flood. Before Mom died, after Mom died. Before chemo, after chemo. My new normal will require me to see my doctor often for the next five years, for the rest of my life. I will be watching many seasons pass as I drive down I-29.
I wear my mother’s sweater throughout the week after I have chemo. When my arms are where her arms were, I feel them surrounding me, hugging me, keeping me safe, keeping me warm. This round of chemo, my emotions are all over the place. Perhaps it’s the holiday season approaching, maybe it’s the health scare of the blood clot, or just the uncertainty of the future. But one thing I do know is that, despite the difficulty of this journey, I cherish the lessons I’ve learned, the people I’ve met, the person I’ve become.
You get through chemo four.
This last round of chemo is brutal. Days in bed, extreme fatigue, lots of tears, times when I think I can’t go on.
It’s during those times that you find your inner strength, you dig deep, and if all you can do that day is walk to the kitchen and back, you’ve succeeded because you were able to get out of bed. And if all you can do the next day is walk out on your front porch and sit in the sun, you’ve succeeded. And you keep going every day. And you thank God for helping you find the strength you didn’t think you had.
It’s November 10, the day of my last chemo. My oncologist has told me that I’m cancer-free. I fold up the pink-ribbon quilt I was given before my first chemo treatment, hand it to my nurse, and tell her to give it to someone new, someone who will cherish the warmth it will offer during a scary time, someone who will pass it on to the next frightened initiate. I walk out into the hall, stand in the lobby, surrounded by complete strangers who are also my cancer sisters, and I ring the bell. I burst into tears and then let out whoops of joy.
Mary Sand is a breast cancer survivor living in Grand Forks, ND. She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in July 2016 and underwent a lumpectomy, followed by four rounds of chemotherapy, and then 15 daily radiation treatments. Her journey is not over, and she has many more stories to tell.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2017.
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