Bravery in the face of Cancer

“You’re so brave!”

“I don’t think I could ever be as brave as you are if I was dealing with cancer…”

“You’re the bravest person I know.”

“I know that I would fall apart if I was you. How do you do it?”

I’ve heard variations on this theme ever since I was diagnosed with cancer — from friends, acquaintances, and my husband. My only response was to shrug and reply with something along the lines of, “I just do what has to be done. Anyone else would probably do the same…” and mostly I think that’s true.

No one knows how they’re going to react if they’re hit with something difficult and life-changing like cancer. Early last year I remember specifically being struck, out of the blue, with a huge panic attack about exactly that. It was spring, I was spending parental leave with Lyra and Pandra, and one day I had the most unsettling of intrusive thoughts: “What if I got cancer right now?”

It was terrifying. I was devastated by the idea that I might not see my girls grow up. I was shaken by a visceral fear of going through chemotherapy, of not knowing what would happen. And this all happened six months before I was even diagnosed. I had no symptoms. There was no reason for me to think about cancer at all. The feeling stuck with me for at least a week. And I was absolutely certain that if it happened to me I’d be a complete mess for that week.

Adam has been sick for the last month or so. He’s had a lot of abdominal pain, and spent five or six hours in Emergency care at our local hospital ruling out worst-case-scenarios like appendicitis or unknown tumors. Upon returning home, he looked at me — just going through life and dealing with the cancer thing and the chemo thing and the parenting thing — and somehow managing to not have a breakdown since this all started in September. And he had a bit of a breakdown, because being sick and in pain and frustrated about not knowing what’s wrong with you… well, it’s really hard to handle.

When Adam asked me how I do it, how I stay so calm and have held myself together throughout this experience, I paused and thought longer about the question, rather than giving my usual response of shrugging it off. I forced myself to think longer and harder about the answer, because when your husband is the one asking you, maybe there’s more to it than just ‘you do what you have to do.’

Just like Girl Guides or The Lion King: Be Prepared

So here’s my secret. My mind is always running through worst-case scenarios. I mean it — always. When I walk down the street I imagine cars careening off the road and up onto the sidewalk towards me. And I plan out what I would do.

When I’m driving I constantly check everything around me and do my best to stay aware of the cars I’m sharing the road with, so I can figure out what to do should one of them intrude on my space. And I consider all options for getting from where I am to where I need to be, and plan not only an initial best route to my destination, but a series of alternate routes if the traffic gets bad, or if there’s unexpected construction, or if I just decide part-way through the trip that it’ll be more efficient to take a different road.

I imagine the commuter train I’m on derailing and my mind rushes through options to survive with as little damage to myself as possible.

I entertain terrible, heartbreaking thoughts of someone trying to grab my five-year-old daughter, or my toddler running off towards a busy road, or innumerable other situations that end in disaster, and I do everything I can think of to keep them from happening.

This is not something I do occasionally. This is my mind, spinning and planning and imagining the. Worst. Possible. Thing. All the time. One might think that it would make me stressed and on edge all the time, this constant weighing of options and subconsciously thinking about what can go wrong, but it doesn’t. Instead, it keeps me calm. Exploring all the possibilities — even if they’re terrible — and making imaginary plans to deal with them keeps me grounded.

So if I can imagine the worst possible thing and decide how to deal with it, anything less is manageable. And if it’s all manageable, if there’s a plan in my head for the worst, then there’s nothing to be afraid of… no reason to panic.

And as for the cancer, well, I took the weapons that science has given us into battle against it. And if the first treatment plan didn’t work, then there are other treatments. One step at a time, with one solution to the problem at hand, and if that doesn’t work move on to the next solution until it does.

Worrying about the possibilities without planning how to deal with them confuses me. It’s not that I don’t worry — I do. I worry, and then I follow through on the scenario in my head, and I discover the best and worst outcomes. I decide how I’ll react to the worst thing. Once I’ve got that figured out, I let the worry and fear go, and keep moving forward.

If that road is closed, or if the traffic gets bad, or if there are too many school zones making me run late, then I reassess my chosen route and find another way. Worry and panic don’t come into play anymore, because I’ve already decided what the worst is and how I’d deal with it.

I still don’t think I’m stronger than anyone else. I’m just painfully, brutally logical. And my mind is always, always spinning.

After chemo: two and a half weeks

This is the first time since October that I haven’t had to go in for a chemotherapy treatment on the two-week mark. I had a sinus infection for a few weeks, but with the help of antibiotics it’s gone now. My taste buds are returning. The chemo brain is receding some, so the cloudiness I’ve been thinking through is finally starting to clear. My hair, which never stopped growing, but did thin out quite a lot, is growing again. I had a labyrinth shaved into it last week to celebrate not having to do chemo anymore, but it’s already growing in… I haven’t decided what to do next with my hair.

I’ve been fatigued, but that’s to be expected. I still have more energy than I did during chemo, so I’ve been able to take on more parenting and cleaning and normal, everyday human responsibilities than I have in a long time. But I’m not at 100% yet. The end of chemo has felt like a non-event. It has happened, and life goes on.

 

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I’ve always wanted to shave my head…

I mean it. I have always wanted to shave my head. My hair is thick, dark, and dense. There’s a lot of it, and on hot days, or when I’ve been wearing a bike helmet, or when I go running, my hair gets in the way. Plus, I love rubbing someone’s shaved head. It feels so nice.

The first thing I thought of when chemotherapy came up was that I would lose all my hair. Instead of getting worried or nervous or freaked out by it, I got excited. With as much hair as I had when I was diagnosed (it was well past my shoulders) I knew that the hair loss process was going to be a bad thing for our shower drains. I had to take action.

First, I decided to donate my long hair to a cancer wig place. I went to a salon where a friendly hairdresser named Safa gave me a very nice short haircut and sent the remains off for donation. But I knew that wouldn’t be enough.

Let’s shave Jenny’s head!

After my first week of chemotherapy, I knew it was getting time to get rid of the rest of my hair. On short notice, I booked the common room in my townhouse complex, invited a bunch of friends over for a pot luck party, and told them they could all help me shave my head.

It was a great party, full of good friends; the people I know are around, ready and willing to help me and my family get through chemotherapy, and cancer, and everything in between. It’s something we need, since most of our extended family (except Adam’s brother Jordy) is three timezones away. The affirmation of our community of friends meant a lot more to me than I could really express at the party. One friend talked about her take on the whole thing in her blog.

Lyra — the second person to help me shave my head, and the first of the children to give it a try — wanted me to have a skunk hairdo. The closest we could come up with was a mohawk… so that was what I went with.

The thing about hair…

Here’s the thing about my relationship with my hair. It’s completely temporary. Got a bad haircut? It’ll grow out. Haven’t had a haircut in a year and a half? Whatever, it’s fine, got get a haircut or something. Not happy with the colour? Try a different one. Don’t like the results of the new colour? Wait a bit and see what happens, or try again. I was a redhead for six years because I was tired of dark brown, and then one day I stopped dyeing my hair. I’ve had purple, blue, pink, and orange hair, usually on purpose.

But I’ve also never been someone who puts much daily effort into my hair. When it’s long, I get the most compliments on it if I haven’t washed it in four days. Most of the time I remember to brush it in the morning. I own a hair dryer, but it hasn’t been used in six years or more. I like my hair, but I don’t give it any extra attention. It’s just there. And it keeps my head nice and warm.

Now I have a mohawk, and I’ve been going to work like normal, and wandering around my usual haunts. From those who know me I’ve had nothing but compliments. Apparently I can rock a mohawk, and that is kind of awesome. I’ve seen a few confused glances from strangers, and I sincerely wonder if the ‘hawk changes people’s perception of me on levels I don’t know. It might be harder to, say, get a job after an in-person interview or something. Or maybe it wouldn’t, I don’t know.

What I know is this: my friends are willing to come to a party just to help me shave my head. I know a lot of great people whose opinions of me obviously will not be lessened by my ‘hawk — and even acquaintances have had a universally positive response, from the baristas at my usual coffee shop to the people who take care of Lyra before and after school. Some of those folks don’t even know about the cancer thing.

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Soon enough my hair will start thinning and falling out. I will likely shave the awesome mohawk right down when that happens, and go with the bald look.

But I have a feeling that, after chemo is over and done with and my hair has returned in whatever form it so chooses, the mohawk may reappear… because I rather like it.

Lyra now tells me that she wants to shave her head into a mohawk too. What better indicator of its awesomeness could there be but mohawk solidarity from your five-year-old daughter?