Denial, Cave Paintings and Brick Walls

Just when I catch myself being judgy about someone else’s denial of something difficult that damn boomerang comes back to hit me in the forehead.  Every.  Time.  I am coming to terms with the fact that I will never be done with cancer.  I have come to terms with that before, but like an alcoholic who relapses and forgets the spiritual awakening she once had, I go back into the cave.

I can stay in that cave for a loooong time. I have built a semi-permanent pallet there.  I guess it is comfortable.  The walls are covered with my finger-painted fantastic ramblings of all the ways that I am over cancer.

But I am not over it.  I will never be over it.  I can’t get my 22 lymph nodes back and give up the lymphedema therapies that I have to do. I can’t get my nipples back.  Or my breast tissue.  I cannot give back the chemotherapy and radiation which have caused permanent damage.  I cannot skip the scans that I will have to get every year for forever.  When I get too comfortable in the cave and something forces me out  into the light I grieve all over again.

I recently started seeing a Palliative care doctor, which is a doctor for people with terminal and/or chronic illnesses.  So far my cancer hasn’t been terminal (yay!) but it is chronic.  There are ways to stem the spread of those confused cells but the treatments themselves can leave effects like neuropathy, nerve damage, arthritis, short-term memory problems, depression, fatigue, and pain and I have decided to attempt to lessen those effects if possible.

The doctor’s office is the same practice as the geriatric internist that my grandmother sees.  Because chronic illnesses usually affect the elderly.  Just like when I went to chemo – it’s me and the old people in the waiting room.

During my first visit with him he said, “With my Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patients like you…” Those words are blinding when I hear them – they eject me from the cave instantly.  I told the nurse that I keep thinking I can be done with cancer and she said, “You’ll never be done.”  Which is true and I need to hear it.  But damn, I would really like to be done with cancer.  Maybe instead I need to give up fighting with it.

Our world is permeated with the “Don’t give up” mentality.  With pictures of women who are skinny and angular from over exercise.  The message is to keep going no matter what.  Randy Pausch said, “Brick walls are there to give us a chance to show us how badly we want something.” I respectfully disagree.  Sometimes they are there to say, “Wrong way, go back.”  And sometimes giving up is the thing to do.  Sometimes we need to give up being right.  Or being married.  Or the profession that we chose, even though we went to school for years to get to it.  Or even life.

When I began writing this post a friend was dying of breast cancer.  She was laying in the hospital, unable to respond, and her body was giving up.  I am glad it gave up because she had struggled so much in the last two years. She endured horrid treatments and scans and surgeries.  In the end none of it worked.  Even in the face of death we still want so badly to keep this precious human life that we will choose to be tortured rather than to give it up.  In the end, we all must give it up.

In the cancer world the message is, “Keep Fighting.”  I’ve never thought of my experience with this disease as a fight, but isn’t denial a form of fighting?  I don’t want to kick cancer’s ass.  Cancer is me.  I’m trying not to hate it because hating it is hating my own cells.  I’m just trying to make peace with it which requires that I stay out of denial.  Some days I’m more successful than others.

It has taken me years to discover that a palliative care doctor can be helpful. If you suffer from a chronic illness I would encourage you to investigate this type of physician for yourself.

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