Reaching Bottom

I don’t want to die without any scars. – Chuck Palahniuk

“I don’t want you to worry, but I thought I needed to let you know that my cancer has returned. This is bad timing, because you’re not sure if you have relapsed yet. Just because I have, does not mean you will too. It’s just incredibly bad luck for me, that’s all.”

I gripped the phone, trying to breathe and process what this meant. It was my neighbour, the woman who’d arrived like an angel on the eve of my first chemotherapy treatment, offering support and encouragement. She wanted me to know what was happening, in case we bumped into one another at the cancer centre.

It had been 10 years, and she was well beyond the window of relapse for triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). According to all the research I read, and the generally accepted view of the medical community, this should not have happened.

Yet it had. As the news sank in, I could feel my stomach tighten against the fear. The safety net of years of remission I’d assumed would hold us both – it wasn’t real. I closed my eyes against the sensation of free falling, thanked her for letting me know, and hung up.

I’d looked to her, over the years, as a symbol of hope: she’d faced the same disease, and she was cured, fully recovered. Now she was facing this grim battle once again. My heart broke for her. My mind whispered insidiously “If it can happen to her…” 

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Photo by Thomas Young on Unsplash

The week of waiting for the MRI seemed an eternity.

In the wake of the “biopsy-that-wasn’t” my body dealt with the physiological fall out of the “fight-or-flight” response the experience engendered. Fight or flight is a reaction from the most primitive parts of the brain when the mind perceives a dangerous threat to one’s existence.  Leading up to the biopsy, I’d been living with the spectre of relapse for a full month. As a result, I was primed on every level for a confrontation with catastrophe. My conscious mind was not aware of this. All I “knew” was that it was a great deal of pressure to live with this possibility and not become totally unravelled by it.

When the only way out of the dilemma that had been offered – a lab test to finally end the worry – had been denied, my brain interpreted this as a real life threat to my survival. Adrenaline and noradrenaline flooded my system, making sitting still an impossibility. In fact, upon returning home after the botched appointment, I’d walked, almost jogging, for a good few kilometres to burn off the raging energy. I’d not been able to do this for years, since the onset of CIPN. Yet as I pounded the pavement, no pain registered in my feet.

When this finally wore off, I crashed. The fatigue I experienced was every bit as potent as the weariness created by cancer treatment. My mind was sluggish, and my body ached from head to toe, right up to the day of the MRI – and into the following weeks.

I passed the days by keeping up the treatment regimen, each appointment and yoga class an opportunity to dial down the stress, soothe the pain symptoms, and slow the nervous system. By the time I arrived for the MRI, the pain thresholds were dropping, bit by bit, but I was still exhausted when I clambered onto the treatment table. Because I was forced to raise my arms above my head for 45 minutes as the test was conducted, the CIPN symptoms became a runaway train. I lost feeling in both hands; tingling and burning sensations rushed from my fingertips to my elbows. It made me clumsy and slow as I tried to redress myself and exit the MRI suite.

The test was completed, finally, and all that remained was more waiting for the results. Over the course of the day, the feeling returned to my fingers – but emotionally, I was numbed and in something of a mental stupor. I did not have the energy to communicate, to worry or fret. Instead, I sat down in the Soft Kitty Chair at the studio, and breathed as I waited for another phone call.

When it arrived the next day, it would usher in a new chapter in my cancer story, and force me to rely even more deeply upon the tools I’d been learning to use: movement, breath, and stillness would help me navigate the storm that was finally breaking.

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