“My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scarped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.” (Lamott, Stitches, p. 10)
Breast cancer treatment is a perilous journey into an underworld of surgeries, toxins and the deep fried delight of radiation. It is a strange journey that strips all control from your grip. The only thing you can do is simply submit to the rigours of the plan. Nothing is in your command; instead, you just show up and hope for the best. (The best meaning that your body doesn’t choose the very worst side effects).
Of course, by the time it was done, I was very cranky. The demands of the adventure had left me depleted in every way: my limbs heavy with fatigue, and gripped by burning and tingling sensations. Pain had settled into my feet, forcing me to shuffle along and grip the railing on the walls of the hospital hallways. I watched the seniors speed walk past me. There was a disconnect between my brain and my hands. I dropped things. Simple jobs became an aggravation as my fingers couldn’t execute the task without deep concentration. Zippers irritated me. Buttons were impossible. Yet these annoyances paled in comparison to the indignity of being completely bald in February. My vanity squawked at me about the absence of eye brows. Still, I was repeatedly reassured by the oncologists and my family doctor that these side effects were only temporary, and within a few months’ time, I would see improvement on every front.
What none of us knew yet was that I had developed a debilitating case of chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). It is a “common” side effect that afflicts between 30 – 70% of breast cancer patients. Chemotherapy can damage the peripheral nervous system, leaving holes in the fatty tissues that encapsulate the nerves running through limbs and into the hands and feet. Thus the highway of nerves, meant to communicate seamlessly with my brain, was full of pot holes that generated pain. In most cases, CIPN dissipates as the nerves begin to repair themselves. My doctors barely took note of the symptoms, and waved away my concerns with a smile, perhaps hoping to distract me with the outstanding news that I was in remission. Crippled, perhaps, but alive nonetheless – so who was I to complain?
Thus I emerged from the tight tunnel of the cancer treatment cave, dangerously worn down, “exhausted and changed” in ways that I had yet to grasp. My doctors were all wrong: the only thing that would heal fully was my baldness. The pain that set in after chemotherapy was completed? Unbeknownst to any of us, it had moved in like that unwanted relative needing a place to bunk. And it wasn’t going anywhere.