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

The Rocky Road of a Cancer Survivor

by Colleen CrinionSurvivor, Breast CancerMarch 7, 2024View more posts from Colleen Crinion

I never know what to say when people tell me how strong I am for beating cancer. For one, I do not feel at all strong. Nor do I feel like I’ve “beaten cancer.” From my perspective, all I’ve done since being diagnosed in 2019 is not die. Granted, no small feat, and I suppose strength factored in, but if we’re being honest, the main reason I’m still here is because of modern medicine and my great fortune to have good insurance and access to talented doctors. My physical and mental prowess was but one factor among many, most of which were out of my hands.

Someone told me once that I am a warrior. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the compliment, and I wish I was a warrior, or at least felt like one. But I don’t. I feel more like the battlefield on which this “war” was waged, not the soldier defeating the enemy. My body got cancer (who knows why, but that’s a whole other thing), and the doctors then proceeded to utilize the tools (weapons if we’re continuing this bellicose analogy) at their disposal to fight it. My oncologist, or more specifically the nurses, administered the chemo, then the surgeons removed the tumor along with my breasts and some wayward lymph nodes. After that came the radiation treatment. Six weeks of never being in pain but watching the affected skin turn various shades of brown, red, and gray, then peeling off in defeat. All I had to do was show up. Again, no small feat, especially by the end, but not exactly a stirring tale of bravery either. I’ve never served in the military but I’m pretty sure you need to do more than just arrive on time.

My mother had cancer when I was growing up. I thought I knew what cancer looked like, and consequently what survivorship looked like too. I did not. I foolishly thought that once my treatment was over, the whole thing would be put behind me, like a souvenir from a trip that you tuck away in the back of the closet, and I would go back to living my life, just without breasts, which I was fine with. I didn’t even mind losing my hair. I have never been so wrong. I don’t know how my mom managed to do it, but she made post-cancer life look very much like her pre-cancer one. And maybe for her it was. She didn’t do chemo, just a mastectomy and radiation (I know, “just”). She slept a lot after. My dad and older sister picked up the chores and took care of her Avon orders. I mostly watched from the sidelines and helped where I could. I suspect she suffered more than she let on, but being a mother she likely did not want to worry her children. She succeeded admirably.

I wish I had her with me now, and when I went through my own cancer treatment, but I am not that lucky. She died from cancer in 2001. She was 63. I was almost 24. Because of this family history (her sisters and mother also got breast cancer), I kind of assumed that I’d get the diagnosis too. And while I never imagined it would be easy, I had no idea just how life-altering it can be. I don’t really miss my breasts (though it does make certain sexual encounters more, shall we say, tricky to navigate). In all honesty, I feel somewhat fortunate to have gotten cancer in a part of my body that isn’t necessary for living. But I do miss feeling like my body was in my control. I miss that inexplicable and underappreciated sense of not being sick, which means you don’t even have to worry if you’ll get sick again. As far as anyone can tell, the cancer is gone. But as any survivor knows, that doesn’t mean it won’t come back. At any time and in any form. My mom got it three times. The first “battle” was in her uterus, which resulted in a hysterectomy. Then she got it in her breast. The final front was waged in her bones. What does it mean when you’re a survivor of breast and uterine cancer while also being terminally ill in your bones? What kind of a “warrior” does that make her?

I think I know why people say things like “you’re so strong,” and “you beat cancer.” For one, what else is there really to say? That’s the language we all know. As a society, we love a good war analogy. It makes us feel like active players in our lives. But I also think it’s a way for those without cancer to remain safely in the cheerleader section, where positivity and good intentions can run free, keeping any discussion of darkness at bay. But that darkness is there, at least for me and a lot of other survivors. It’s not always at the forefront, but it’s got a permanent residence, always waiting for any chance to rise up. My friends don’t accompany me to my doctors’ appointments anymore but the darkness does. It’s there every time I look at my new chest, every time I take Biotin in the quixotic hope that my hair will somehow get thicker like it was before the chemo. And it never misses a therapy appointment.

Cancer doesn’t rule my life but it has irreparably changed its trajectory. It’s like I’ve been initiated into a club that no one wants to be a part of, with membership that lasts a lifetime. I’m grateful that I can still do all the things I want. I try to remember that on days when the darkness looms large. But I can’t change my path. I can’t go back to my old self. She left when the chemo started coursing through my veins. Now it’s all about living with this altered body and hoping that there is no sequel to this story. Not exactly the stuff of legends.

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