Picking up the pieces

My friend is in the early days of survivorship. As with so many difficult tasks we women have faced — things like labor, for instance, and plane trips with toddlers, and cancer — you think you will always remember how hard every part was. You are certain you will never forget the details, and the difficulty.

But when a newly-minted cancer survivor, just starting out, tells you how she really feels – not how her friends and family and how she herself thinks that she should feel –you realize that you had forgotten how much this part, too, is just another terrifying step into the wide unknown. Another time where we feel like we can’t possibly be doing this right.

I had finished treatment, I remember that, but it was still summer, and I know my hair had not yet grown back. I remember sitting with my dog out at the place where I liked to sit and think and sometimes be really grateful and in-the-moment and sometimes cry bitterly until my face was splotchy. I remember the look of concern and confusion on my husband’s face. “I think maybe you should talk to someone,” he said, as kindly and lovingly as anyone could. “I’m really worried that you are still crying every day.”

Yeah, I was worried too. I was worried that I would cry every day for the rest of my life, and that just reminded me that I didn’t know how long that would be, which made me want to cry even more. So I did talk to someone, a cancer counselor who was quick to assure me that this was to be expected from the most resilient of survivors and supportive of husbands. (That alone made it seem less worrisome!) It sounded less crazy when she talked about it, the work that begins when treatment ends. You wake up in a war-torn life, with the landscape of your body and your life and your very soul changed almost beyond recognition. You find some landmarks you can count on, like a loyal dog and a loving husband  and the parts of yourself that you can still pick up and piece together, and you just find a way to start rebuilding, one tiny little bit at a time.

We have language for this now, the “transition to survivorship”, and those of us who have been there know how much more treacherous is the journey than the language would suggest.  It all came back to me as my friend and I talked, the waves of fear and doubt that invade a peaceful morning, and the pangs of panic that accompany the audacity of future plans.The grief that accompanies the acknowledgement of all you had to give up to get even this far, and the guilt of feeling anything short of grateful to be alive. The secrecy and shame that sneak in while everyone who loves you is feeling so proud of you, and so relieved that you are finished with treatment, and you want so much to feel that, too. The reality that, some days, all you feel is broken and confused – again – about how you are supposed to move forward with the “new normal” when the old one was just fine, and you’d like it back, thank you very much.

If any of this sounds familiar, or even if it doesn’t, I have news for you: You’re doing it exactly right. Keep up the good work.