The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Dear Cancer, You Are Now My Chronic Illness

by Katrina LopezSurvivor, Ovarian CancerJune 28, 2023View more posts from Katrina Lopez

Dear Cancer,

You have changed my life in ways you will never know. It was the beginning of January 2020 when we first officially met. It was a cool and cloudy day. I was sitting in bed watching HGTV when I received the call. I was 30. I had all of these plans and adventures I was going to conquer next, but this is far from what I had in mind. No one could have prepared me for this “adventure”—this diagnosis, my dad unexpectedly passing away, and the start of the pandemic all within months of one another. I suddenly had no time to stop and breathe. All I knew was I had to keep moving. Living became a full-time job on top of my ordinary Monday-to-Friday job. But there was nothing ordinary about you. In a blink of an eye, my days suddenly consisted of scans, bloodwork, procedure after procedure, and a lot of shrugged shoulders from different doctors. The words of “it is cancerous” and “this is so so rare” due to my tumor type will forever be ingrained in my mind. The unknown seemed to be the only thing that was known.

I pushed chemo out as long as my oncologist would allow me to. Eventually, it was time to face you. I won’t forget stepping off the elevator to the infusion center and nurses greeting me in hazmat suits, scurrying me through the lobby as no visitors were allowed. Dealing with you and chemo during the height of COVID and the pre-vaccine era was an experience in itself. I was now not only trying to manage all of these new side effects from chemo—albeit nausea, hives, rash, hair loss, fatigue, and body aches and pains were a lot—but also as someone immunocompromised, I was trying to stay safe and alive. I remember looking around the room and being the youngest person there. It suddenly felt lonelier and colder. I held my breath as they poked around my arm to start the IV, and then mumbled to the nurse, “Here we go.” I knew there was no turning back now.

Months went by, chemo was over, and I started to slowly feel and look more like myself. I was in remission.. or so I thought. Some side abdominal pains came back and sure enough… you were there. I couldn’t escape you. You spread throughout my abdomen that next year. I was scared, sad, and frustrated. The “Why me,” “Why now,” and more importantly, “What happens next” questions flooded my mind. I was restless. It was back to the drawing board for me and for the doctors. From endless appointments, tests, and shots to now a major 13-hour surgery, where we explored new technology, to try to save my life from you. I spent nights in the ICU and almost weeks in the hospital. I could barely walk and couldn’t eat. I visited new doctors, started physical therapy, and spent months recovering. You exhausted me and you tested me.

My head, heart, and body ache for the damages that can never be undone. Most people will never understand the toll you have taken on me. Outsiders think I’m “strong,” “resilient,” and “brave,” but in reality, sometimes I feel like I’m barely keeping my head afloat. They see a smile and think all is well, but underneath sits grief, loss, anxiety, and pain. Even on the brightest days that might feel like they once did, I look in the mirror and see and feel remnants of you. I have a scar that is the length of a ruler across my body from my surgery. These are now my memories of my 30s. I hear my alarms on my phone ring as reminders to take my medication. Medication that I need to be on forever, and I’m reminded every day that you never actually disappear.

Cancer, today, you are now my chronic illness. I won’t ever understand why or how we got here, but I honor that I am standing on my own two feet again. That I’m still alive. I’m terrified and unafraid all at the same time. I have spent a lot of time reflecting, thinking, planning (and unplanning), and this experience has created a new sense of confidence in me. I have been rediscovering my voice again—she has more clarity on who she is, what she wants, and what she stands for. I can boldly say that I know how to do hard things. I know how to fall down and get back up again and again. I have this burning fire under me to live and to explore, to see the world around me, to do what makes me happy…and to remove anything in my life that no longer serves me. I don’t know what is going to happen next year or even tomorrow, but I know what I know right now, this simple moment in time. And I will continue to embrace those moments every day. For better or worse, this whole experience, my life, the constant feeling of uncertainty, has made me more comfortable with the uncomfortable and to seize the moment of today. I’m no longer holding my breath but rather taking a deep breath and saying, “Here we go.”

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