Four years ago today, I heard the words that changed my life: “I’m so sorry. We found cancer.” I’ve spent a lot of time (read: entirely too much time) thinking about how much has happened since then — and yet, despite all that, how much some things haven’t changed.
On one hand, I’m proud of myself for surviving, both physically and psychologically, the last four years. This has been, for so many reasons — some of which I can’t talk about publicly, in the interest of preserving the privacy of those closest to me — the hardest time of my life. Surviving with both my body and mind relatively intact has taken a lot of work, and I’m proud of myself for muscling through the pain, fear, loss, sadness, and what felt like repeated assaults on my body.
On the other hand, though, today’s anniversary has reinforced, for like the 83,954th time, how much my body has changed in the last four years — and not in ways that I like.
However! Two side notes before I get into this:
1) Despite my own not-so-great feelings about my body right now, I very much believe in the importance of encouraging women to feel good about their bodies as they are, and not as society’s purveyors of skinniness would have us believe. Body-shaming is not okay, ever. As long as a woman feels good in her own skin, is able to do things she enjoys, and is healthy, then I have no f*cks to give about her size. My weight and body image struggles apply solely to me, and this is definitely not a commentary about anyone else.
2) I also want to make it clear that I know that none of this is my fault, and I don’t blame myself for anything that has happened. I got cancer because I inherited a shitty genetic mutation, not because I did anything wrong. I gained weight because of the medications I’ve had to take and the surgeries I’ve had, and I don’t blame myself for any of this. That doesn’t keep me from feeling gross about the end result, but I want to be clear that my frustration is with the situation — which has entailed losing control control over how I look and feel — not myself.
All that being said, my body has been through a lot in the last few years. It started in spring 2013: before I first got sick, the uncontrollable hemorrhaging was preceded by rapid weight gain. After having worked so hard to lose weight in 2012, it was alarming — who gains 30 pounds in 6 weeks?! — and profoundly demoralizing.
I couldn’t exercise after the bleeding began, so I felt helpless to do anything about my sudden, and disconcertingly rapid, expansion. Oh, and there was the unrelenting, agonizing cramps that came along with it, and the nausea caused by the prescription pain meds I was given. None of that was a picnic either.
Then I got the cancer diagnosis, and I spent the next 14 months on massive doses of progesterone in an effort to treat the cancer while preserving my fertility. This made me gain an extra 20 pounds — by this point I was nearly 50 pounds heavier than I’d been before I got sick — and left me feeling like I had the worst case of PMS ever. Even though I was able to exercise during my treatment, the dose of progesterone I was on was so high that my exercise routine didn’t have any impact on either my mood or my weight. My anxiety and depression were in overdrive, and between that and the weight gain, I felt like an extremely emotional water buffalo.
Once I was declared cancer-free, I was able to go off the progesterone, and within a few months, I lost the extra 20 pounds it had made me gain. I was starting to physically feel like myself again, but emotionally I was still a wreck. And then I went on Clomid when we were trying to conceive, which not only gave me vertigo and made my hair fall out in clumps, but also took my existing anxiety problems and turned them into the mental health equivalent of Sharknado. I used to sit at my desk, holding onto it to keep from falling out of my chair from the vertigo, while also having panic attacks thinking about how everyone I love is going to die, and I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life. It was…not fun.
And then!!! Then my cancer came back, and then I had to have a total hysterectomy. My ovaries came out too, which made me a resident of Menopause City — and in case anyone is wondering, it’s a miserable, wretched city, and I hope someday medical innovation makes it possible to burn that sh*thole to the ground.
So then I went on antidepressants, which helped with the depression and anxiety, but also made me gain weight again. I have very mixed feelings about this: the fact that they give me a leg up on my brain’s determination to be freaked out and sad is enormously helpful, but when they also leave me feeling like the Stay-Pufft Marshmallow Man (among other side effects), it winds up feeling like a double-edged sword.
AND THEN. Around this time last year, I also developed a befuddling chronic pain problem (seemingly unrelated to the antidepressants): my migraines have become more frequent and more intense, and I’ll have days where every layer of tissue in my lower body just f*cking hurts. I’ll feel like I’ve run a marathon; my muscles, fascia, tendons, and joints will all feel like they’ve been brutalized, and I’ll be hit with overwhelming fatigue. I haven’t found a discernible pattern to when the pain flares up, and it’s increasingly resistant to NSAIDs. I’m allergic to opiates, and even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t want to take them since this is a chronic pain issue — but that means I’m running out of pain management options. Yay.
The last hurdle was this spring, when I discovered the hernia as a leftover complication from my hysterectomy. That put the kibosh on doing any sort of weight training, which just…seriously has bummed me out.
Granted, there have been some major improvements over the past six months: I was finally able to go on estrogen replacement therapy, which has almost totally eliminated the menopausal misery, and I found that eating a lot more protein helps my pain flare-ups be fewer and further between. So, there has been considerable progress in both minimizing and managing all my body’s temper tantrums.
But the fact is, I’ve always been strong, I’ve always been fast, and I’ve always been an athlete. (The way my parents tell it, shortly after I learned how to walk, I figured out how to run — and then I never stopped. I reportedly spent my first birthday running laps around my grandmother’s house.) But now, between the pain, weight gain, surgeries, and fatigue, I haven’t felt like myself in over four years.
Four years of feeling like someone covered my muscles with marshmallow fluff. Four years of running more slowly than I ever have, and working harder just to do what used to come so easily. Four years of having either intense physical pain, or feeling so besieged by depression and anxiety that I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. Four years of feeling weak, not being able to gain muscle mass or lift as much as I used to. Four years of feeling like a vastly diminished version of myself.
I want this stage of my life to be over. It’s been long enough, dammit. I’m tired of hurdles. I’m tired of unexpected complications and unforeseen challenges. I’m tired of feeling like I’m stuck in a body that feels so alien to me.
Logically, I know I’m improving. I know I’m in a much better place than I was a year ago, when both the pain and the menopause symptoms were wildly uncontrolled. I got the hernia repaired, and I’m nearly at the end of the compulsory six-week waiting period before lifting anything over 10 lbs.
But at the same time, I’m panicking that I’ll never actually feel like me again. I’m scared that I won’t ever be in a position to go off of my antidepressants — given how deeply unhappy I am with both my career and living in D.C., it would be madness (pun intended!) to discontinue them right now — and that I’m doomed to be eternally fluffy, slow, and weak.
I mean, what if the physical trauma of the last four years, the menopause f*ckery, and the meds have all joined forces to permanently wreck my metabolism? What if I never find a decent pain management regimen? What if the depression and anxiety prove too squirrelly to manage without medication, and I have these side effects for the rest of my life? Or, what if I discontinue the meds, someday when my life circumstances are more forgiving, and nothing improves? What if I’m like this forever?
Aaaaaallllll that being said, I know that, for now, I need to just focus on the things I can do. I can go running, even if it’s slower than a tortoise that just smoked a joint the size of a yule log. I can start weight training again on the 13th. I can keep being gentle with myself, because I know that none of this is my fault.
So, those are my goals for now: to focus on doing what I can, to remind myself that I’m still kickin’, even after all this grossness, and to keep taking things one day at a time. Even though I don’t love the pace of things, I know that small steps tend to have a cumulative effect: after a while, they eventually lead to big changes. I’ll definitely be ready for those big changes when they roll around, but for now, I know I need to just keep on keeping on.