photo: prague castle, october 2012
This cancer thing is pretty humbling. I gotten through the diagnosis, the surgery, the chemo, the worst of the side effects and sort of thought I’d be able to bounce back quickly. Not so much.
I was warned by the team that it’s not going to be a fast transition back to a full-life as a cancer survivor. I listened diligently. I took the information into my still chemo foggy brain and nodded my head, “Yes, I understand. Yes, I’ll be patient with myself”.
But in reality, the actual living through each day post-treatment isn’t as I hoped or even expected. I have been feeling more fragile and have been wondering where my strong cancer-warrior went.
A few truths about me. I’m a strong, and independent woman who is used to being able to do what I want, and when I want. In the past this included working long hours, walking everywhere, going to the gym to strength train, and generally making spontaneous decisions about how I live my life. Pre-pandemic, this also included travel. As much, as often, and very often decided on only a few weeks before the flight.
Another truth. I am not someone who likes walls around her. I actively avoid self-limiting. A friend of mine once read my palm and said, “You’re like a house with all the lights on and all the doors and windows open – wanting to not miss an experience”. And holy – how that resonated with me. She looked into my palm, and read right into my soul. My spirit cries out, “why choose something that might lead to a regret later!” I’ve always felt it’s better to have as many options available as possible.
My palm-reading friend also left me with these words, “At some point, it’s okay to close a few of the windows and start to tend to what you have in your house”. That also resonated with me, but I have a much harder time closing those windows. She was referring, I think, to romantic relationships. I’ve been single most of my life, and continue to be now. Probably has something to do with all those open doors and windows in my palm-house. Better out than in, and don’t let the door hit you on the way!
To become a cancer survivor you first need to run the gauntlet and then, if you’re lucky to have found your cancer early, and have had successful treatments, you hit the stage that used to be called “in remission”. We now call this NED. No evidence of disease. Such sweet sounding words to my ears.
I love NED. I’ll close a few doors, and windows for NED.
Which brings me to the meat of this post today. I have learned that I need to close a few windows and doors, maybe only for a little while, but I need to close a few in order to fully recover and gain back my mental, spiritual, physical and emotional strength.
This isn’t easy for me. And it has become humbling to not only recognize, but to accept the limitations I must place on my body and mind right now.
I have had a very emotionally and physically challenging few weeks. Part of this is because my body is still adjusting to the hormone therapy I need to be on to help prevent a recurrence, but part of it is because surviving the battle has left me rather depleted with not much left in the tank.
I’ve been doing my physio rehab exercises to get back flexibility, strength, and stamina. But sometimes I can’t complete the physio. It’s a series of good fundamentals – torso twists, arm stretches, back stretches, dead bugs, cobra, cat and cow poses, bridge, and child’s pose. All gentle and designed to get me moving, and to help my scar tissue release. Some days my rib intercostal muscles are so sore that I can barely breathe. Some days my arm can’t lift over my head. Some days I am so dizzy that I need to stop and lay down for a rest.
Walking is also part of my rehab. I’ve gotten much better at it recently. Pre-cancer, I walked everywhere. No car leads to lots of good walking exercise when you live in a city like Toronto. Over the past few months I’ve gone from barely being able to walk to my corner ,to being able to go for a two hour walk. This includes lots of rests, sitting, and breaks. I get winded and my back and ribs hurt on long walks. But I’m getting there.
Work is also something that usually sustains me. But I’ve found that too many meetings in a row, or too many emails or reading or writing too many documents end up in me being overwhelmed and in tears or retreating into myself. The colleagues I work with most closely are all aware of my treatment and are learning more about my recovery. Day by day is the motto.
I had a few weeks in a row of being frustrated, and sad, and scared, and upset that I “don’t recognize myself” with all the boundaries I’ve needed to put around myself like metaphorical safety rails.
I know myself as a woman with no limits. One who can do not only what she wants, but also whenever she wants to. I manifest my own destiny. I accomplish and I persevere.
Rather than boost me though, these thoughts brought me sadness and caused me to feel like I was a failure because I wasn’t accomplishing much of what I expected to. I’ve been feeling like my strength to accomplish is all gone and I’m just a fragile and vulnerable mess. There have been so many tears and sleepless nights over the past few weeks over this.
I am fortunate to be speaking with a social worker at the survivorship clinic. She has been so helpful to speak with to help bring me to a new way of thinking. By asking provocative questions, and working with me to define the necessary boundaries, I feel like I’m making the right decisions for myself this week.
After putting those boundaries in place a few weeks ago, I promptly pushed past the boundaries, and ended up an achey, dizzy, and weepy mess. But, going past the limits I’d set for myself helped me to recognize that these boundaries are real, and must be honoured for the time being.
I’ve had a boost of enlightenment this week. I have updated my mental self-talk playlist from “You can do what you want & when you want!” to “It’s okay that you can’t do everything you want to right now. And it’s absolutely enough to accomplish some of the things you’d normally be able to do.”
I’ve relaxed the expectations I have for myself, and it has made all the difference.
Can I do my physio and 10 minutes of yoga and go for a long walk in one day? No. So pick one or two, and do those. And, if I get dizzy and can’t finish, or need to sit more than I walk – that’s okay. At least I’m doing it.
Can I pack my work calendar as much as I did before with non-stop meetings? No. But if I space them out, and reschedule if needed, I can keep up with the essential work goals.
Can I make both lunch and dinner on the same day? Some days I can, but more often I usually can’t. But If I make large enough portions, I can make sure there are delicious and nutritous leftovers for days!
That house in my palm with all those open doors and windows can still be there. I don’t need to get rid of it, or move out. I just need to close a few of the openings and turn off a few of the lights right now. Not always, just long enough to weather this passing storm.