Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn

6 Months Later

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Today is May 20- which means it has been 6 months since my very last treatment! It feels like a milestone chunk of time has passed… and I really like that.  🙂

I’m feeling good and loving all of this nice weather. We’ve been spending time outdoors riding bikes, geocaching, and playing outside. The girls have a ton of fun activities happening at the end of the school year… and it’s nice to feel well for all of them this year. At their dance rehearsal last week, my friend reminded me that at last year’s rehearsal I couldn’t eat (remember my survival on slushies?!?) and had to constantly use my “magic mouthwash” just to tolerate the pain from the mouth sores. I’m thankful for those reminders to keep my perspective straight.

I have a few random cancer topics I’d like to post about… and today feels like the appropriate time to talk about recovery. When I was first diagnosed, my treatment plan had the long-term goal of “cure” (sums it up well, huh?) At a recent follow-up appointment, I asked my oncologist when we can say I met my goal. The answer was a groaning “5 years from now”. Yep- in order to actually get to say I’m cured, I have to be cancer free for 5 years. But I’m 6 months into that now, so I’m 1/10 of the way there!!

So then people ask about “remission”, “cancer free”, and “no evidence of disease”…. All terms used to describe cancer recovery at one point or another. “Remission” means that they don’t think there’s any cancer left… but they can never be sure. Cancer is so tricky and is dormant in so many people- it doesn’t become life threatening until it starts growing uncontrollably. So it’s hard to definitively say that it’s gone. “Remission” is a term used outside of my cancer world, and I’ve never heard it from any of the medical professionals I’ve been with. So when people ask if I’m in “remission”, I guess the answer is “yes”… it just feels awkward to classify something in a way that my doctor’s don’t.

Doctors are more likely to use the current term “no evidence of disease” or “NED”. This is their clearer way of saying that they don’t see evidence of any more cancer. This doesn’t commit them to saying it’s gone or cured… but they don’t see any signs of it anymore. So this is probably the term I would use if I had to choose one… because I’ve heard doctors actually use it. The caveat- they use it after PET scans, MRIs or CT scans, and I haven’t had any of those…. Because they don’t think I need them because we don’t have reason to believe there’s any cancer left.  🙂 (Yep- that just looped around into a big question mark.)

As people read through that, they may think “just be happy that it’s gone” or “why worry about the terminology”. It’s something that I struggle with because I SO
desperately want to feel “cured” and move on. My hesitation is two-fold:

1- Cancer caught me off-guard. I knew I had a high risk of it because of my family history. But I never imagined I would have to deal with it in my 30s. So part of my caution is a protective measure to prevent that again.

2- I still feel like a patient. I take oral chemo pills as part of the clinical trial I participate in. I take hormone blockers that have their own lovely (said sarcastically) side effects. I go to a zillion appointments all of the time- with my oncologist, research nurse, surgeon, endocrinologist, and radiation oncologist. They are mostly just 6 week follow-ups, but when you have so many different follow-ups they feel like they happen every week. I also have random other appointments and bloodwork to do- like my bone density test last week. So when other moms are trying to remember their grocery list to pick up on their way home from work, I have to add in a stop by the dr for a kidney ultrasound (and remember not to pee beforehand because they need a full bladder). I miss the days without all of this extra stuff. My right arm and side are sore and partially numb still- without the range of motion I used to have. I need to do stretches every day or it starts to get tight and painful. (When they say that the radiation effects last 6-12 months, they weren’t joking.) And, the obvious physical issue of “living flat” as I wait for reconstruction.

I love my life. I have moments and days of such sweet joy. But sometimes at the end of a really great day, I think “what would that day have been like for my family if I wasn’t there?”. I don’t know if that’s morbid or depressing, or just another perspective I have that other people don’t. But I’ve talked to other survivors about it and they have the same thoughts… so I figured I should share. And when people ask about my recovery and healing, now you know why the answers are more complicated than it seems they should be.

As many of you continue to ask what to pray for, I ask that you pray that this can be easier for me. That I can more simply live without so many thoughts about how I answer questions. That I can emotionally “move on” from this a little faster. For now, until I feel more confident with anything else, if someone asks how I’m doing or if I’m “cured” or in “remission” I’m going to stick to my answer of “I’m happy to be alive.”

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