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

Shoo Cancer, Don’t Bother Me

by Lucero UribeSurvivor, Stage 1b Triple Negative Invasive Ductal CarcinomaMay 23, 2024View more posts from Lucero Uribe

Death tally: one mother, one father, one marriage, one brother, another brother—nearly. For 45 years I thought of myself as a survivor, but when you don’t have any visible scars to show for it, nobody really acknowledges your wounds. Today I have multiple scars—the one on my chest the most telling—and funny enough, I now get a pat on the back and a “Congratulations, you are now a survivor.” The truth is, I’m not a survivor—I am a doer. When there is death, you push through; when there is hardship, you push through; when there is cancer, as psychoanalyst Maria Michelena suggests, you let your body become the battleground, with medicine and the disease as the only players.

Cancer is a horror movie nobody wants to watch or star in. Yet when cast as its main character, the last thing one wants to hear is praise for their performance, and what a “brave warrior” they’ve been. Those were the moments that made me cringe, wanting to tell off every one of my well-intentioned cheerleaders, but then I reminded myself that few are emotionally equipped to navigate such daunting situations until they are faced with them. I had to accept my support system and understand that not all supporters are made equal: they stick, run, or freeze. Those who stick are your ride or die and don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in your shoes; those who run live in denial, fake dementia, and go on with their lives; and those who freeze tread lightly, walk on eggshells, try to be nice, and never know the right thing to say. I am not judging anyone, and I wholeheartedly believe each helped me in their own way.

After getting a mammogram and an ultrasound for a small lump on my chest, in which a very empathetic radiologist said, “No worries, seven out of ten times it’s cancer,” I was officially diagnosed on February 11, 2022, at age 43—an early Valentine’s day gift, the optimists would say, because there are indeed those who see cancer as that. I say Cupid did a number on me and to see it as a gift is a load of feel-better-bull****. I can understand, only in hindsight, that it is a period of awakenings, lessons, aha moments, and an opportunity to improve or change things about yourself, but I am still reluctant to call it anything other than a devastating blow.

I remember the fateful call: “You have grade 3 invasive ductal carcinoma.” Ignorant as I was, in my mind, grade 3 was synonymous with impending death, and it wasn’t until I met with my oncologist that I learned that “grade” was not “stage.” Her assurance that I was stage 1 provided a glimmer of hope. She was kind, understanding, empathetic—all qualities that we assume a cancer doctor should have, and yet many don’t—and laid out my treatment options: double mastectomy or lumpectomy, depending on my DNA tests. If I had the BRCA gene, I could also begin planning to get rid of my ovaries. It was like a Black Friday bundle: a cheap price to pay if it meant prolonging your health, but I was not looking for bargains just yet. The subsequent news of negative test results for the BRCA gene offered a sense of relief, but due to the aggressive nature of my triple-negative tumor, I would have sixteen rounds of chemotherapy.

Despite keeping my diagnosis under wraps, messages of support inundated me. Suddenly, I had friends and family showering me with “their light,” while others thought it appropriate to compliment my strength: “Thank goodness this happened to you and not me because you are a much stronger person.” For the next few days, weeks, months, I would turn into someone else, someone brave, disciplined, focused, but nevertheless cached in the fear of uncertainty.

On March 10, 2022, I underwent a double mastectomy, emerging from the eight-hour surgery with implants, nipples, and a newfound sense of resolve. The recovery went so well that I did without the painkillers and was almost excited, but the subsequent rounds of chemotherapy proved grueling. I did the cold cap, which meant my chemo sessions ran long: five hours for Taxol, eight hours for AC, all while carrying Antarctica on my head. I kept up with hair care routines, tried to maintain a diet—although chemo cravings are worse than pregnancy ones—did magnets sessions, acupuncture, lymphatic massages, meditated at the beach, tried to convince my dead peeps not to take me yet, and after speaking with other women who were “like me,” I came up with a supplements routine that helped keep my white blood cells and all other counts in check.

Through the nausea and fatigue I continued being a mom to my three and five-year-olds, a wife, a writer, and as my chemotherapy regimen drew to a close on August 29, 2022, a new challenge emerged—post-chemo hair loss. I guess I never read the fine print where it said shedding would continue for months. Mine lasted four, and I cried for every strand that left my head. In the end, I kept most of my beautiful locks, my microbladed eyebrows looked good, my top eyelashes were still in place, and even though I felt like a monster, I knew I looked “normal” to the outside world, and that was the one thing I had wished for, especially for my kids’ sake. Yes, I had been lucky in many ways. I was physically in one piece; I had a husband who could be a rock and a punching bag at once, which is not an easy feat, but what can I say, he’s magic; I had a badass sister in charge of being my soul-sitter and making sure I didn’t rot on the inside; I had amazing friends who came from far away just to sit with me for long hours at the hospital, making me laugh, sometimes at myself; I had family members helping me out with the children; and I even had strength to go to the gym for short periods. Again, I was lucky, but I still felt like the unluckiest person alive.

Why me? That is what everyone, everywhere, who has ever been diagnosed with any disease asks themselves. For me, the answer was easy: I was bad in the past, drank too much, smoked too much, was a bad friend, a bad daughter, a liar, and God, or whoever holds the power of the universe, punished me. He had been punishing me from the beginning of days, so why stop now? It’s almost like I expected it. For years I had been looking for this tumor through endless MRIs and tests each time I felt any kind of pain. And voila, it finally appeared. My therapist says it’s a little narcissistic to think I’m the Almighty’s favorite when it comes to unleashing his wrath, and I agree. There are people who have had to undergo worse circumstances, but when I’m singled out, I can’t help but feel like “His” special girl.

The aftermath of cancer treatment is a twilight zone where nothing is as it seems. You are done with chemo, but instead of feeling relieved, you feel depressed and vulnerable, and those around you can’t understand this. They need you to be OK so they can unburden themselves. This is when the loneliness sets in and you succumb to dark thoughts, to the time a close family member said her biggest fear was becoming like you, and you think: “Of course, who would want my disaster-ridden life?” And that’s your cue to pick yourself up.

My life has not been dull, for better or worse, too much baggage, too many broken pieces, and no conventional achievements (I’m not a lawyer or an engineer I suppose), but after much therapy, exercise, and self-love I have been able to dial down the negative dialogue. Yes, I am scared every day, but I try to fit into my new life, even if at times I grieve the person I was—she was quite fun. Today, I am healthy, wiser, and I try to embrace every part of myself, sickly or not, because I have learned that I am perfect just the way I am, and I wouldn’t want anyone to be like me—that would just put too much pressure on my ego.

In short, I am a survivor, like everyone else. All of our clocks are ticking at the same pace. The difference is I have been acquiring tools at the best shops, and I just might have an advantage. And although I still can’t say the words: I beat_____, because “he who must not be named” might hear me and come back with a vengeance, I can definitely tell it to shoo and not bother me again.

Join the Conversation!

Leave a comment below. Remember to keep it positive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *