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

The High School Swimmer Turned Cancer Patient

by Perry ZimmermanSurvivor, Retinoblastoma & OsteosarcomaOctober 12, 2023View more posts from Perry Zimmerman

I was on my high school swim team until my fourth cancer diagnosis on November 26, 2018, and until this past November, I wore my swim team sweatshirt all the time. One day last fall I picked it up to put it on and something stopped me. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I no longer have the mobility in my left shoulder that I need to go back to swimming the 50 free or the fact that I knew exactly what was going on in my shoulder in 2018 at the beginning of my swim season and did not turn myself in until my mom saw the lump over the Thanksgiving break. Whichever explanation gives the truth, I still haven’t touched the sweatshirt I used to wear all the time since that day my brain said no.

Every November since 2018, my brain has shut down a little, but this past November was by far the worst yet. I was reliving everything from the diagnosis whether it was the rapid arm circles on the pool deck to loosen up the shoulder that was tight because it was being taken over by osteosarcoma. I was reliving the day my mom saw the lump, the day I got the scan confirming what we all knew, and the countless days in the hospital receiving chemo. But that’s all the usual stuff that goes through my head every November.

Most Novembers I am able to shake it off a little bit. I am able to get to class and function and save the thoughts and flashbacks for my own time back in my dorm room. But this November, the thoughts took over. I made it to every class, but I could not pay attention because I was reliving the past the whole time. I was staring through my professors instead of looking at them and listening to what they were saying. It’s like my brain was hijacked by something more than the typical depression and anxiety I am used to. And the sweatshirt is where it all started. OK, that’s a lie, the sweatshirt was the first big thing in a long series of unfortunate events, but it was not where it all started.

At some point in the beginning of this past fall’s breakdown, I called on the help of a resource at my college. I walked into her office, and because we already had a little bit of a rapport she asked if I was having a “senior shutdown” moment, and thinking about it like that was probably a part of why the “grief-trauma response” was so much worse.

Yes, cancer had thrown a wrench in some of it, but throughout my whole life, I’d always known what was coming next. But on top of everything that was going through my head in November, I was a senior in college with no job lined up and a family who didn’t always see eye to eye with me on these issues. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what’s next, and that is terrifying.

Even with cancer diagnoses, I knew what was coming. Yes, in the fall of 2018, I was planning on completing my senior year of high school fully in school and applying to colleges like your normal high school senior, but the diagnosis changed the plan. The plan may have changed, but I had a plan. And now, fresh out of college, for the first time in my life I don’t have a plan.

This past fall was the first time I’d even considered the fact that I might have some sort of post-traumatic whatever. It’s not diagnosed, so I’m not calling it PTSD, but the signs all point in that direction.

I can no longer eat pita without it bringing up a myriad of emotions. Pita was the one easily accessible food that I would eat during treatment, so now eating pita just brings me back to that hospital bed. After every scan day, my mom asks if I want some hummus and pita, and I just look at her with the ”mom, you know how I feel about pita” eyes. And we too often end up getting pita.

In the hospital setting on scan days, the smell of saline flushes is weird. It’s not the same up-and-away trigger the sweatshirt was; it’s more a reminder of where I’ve been and have no desire to go back to. I never liked saline flushes. I could always taste them, so I told the nurses to inject them slowly. We still have a stash of flushes somewhere in the house, and whenever I see them my brain does somersaults. Somehow though, seeing my doctors, nurses, and NPs just feels like coming home. Heck, they are still my strongest support system even years after treatment.

Now that I’m more involved in cancer communities, it’s the loss that brings everything up. Instead of asking “why me” upon diagnosis, I am asking “why me” when I have survived four cancers with harsh treatment regimens and too many of my friends haven’t survived one.

With the loss comes the milestones lost. I just graduated from college, which four years ago seemed like a distant possibility. But I didn’t take any official graduation photos because of the emotions the milestone was bringing up. I have friends who should have crossed their college graduation stages but were robbed because of cancer, and statistically, I should not have been able to cross that stage.

My life could be very different, and sometimes I’m mad it’s turned out how it has. And I’m not going to end on some happy, uplifting note, because that’s not how most cancer stories end. Yes, I may be almost five years out from my most recent diagnosis, I just graduated from college, and I have a fantastic support system in so many areas of my life. But at the same time, my brain is often my worst enemy. I’ve been through the wringer not only physically but also mentally, and last fall is the number one example of that.

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