Yesterday Olivia started her last day of Chemo. As anyone who has gone through Chemo knows, that is quite a milestone. I realized that many people may have never known Chemo from the inside out. They may have watched others go through Chemo, but personally they have never had to endure it. Thinking about Olivia, and her family, I thought about when I went through Chemo.
I’ve tried to come up with the perfect analogy about having to have Chemo. Being told you should have Chemo after you have been told you have Cancer is something akin to being told you have rotten teeth and then seeing the pliers poised over your mouth to yank out all your teeth. It’s like doing your taxes and then being audited by the IRS and then thrown on the stand in court to explain your entertainment budget. Maybe this… It’s like believing in Santa, and then finding out he is not real when he arrives at your door with a gun and robs you blind.
The truth is there is nothing like having Chemo. You KNOW you have to do it. You dread it. You fear it. You try and find ways to deal with it. Since Chemo is broken into different sessions over some time, you go through these feelings multiple times. If you are an optimist like me, after the first session you say I have finished 1, not I have ___ more to go. But that last session, in the time leading up to it you are saying “I only have one more to go.”
When I went through Chemo, I feared losing my hair and I feared being continually sick. But I feared dying more. I would listen to hymns on my walk-man. Glenn sat by my side. The nurses were always nice putting a warm blanket on me as the cold drugs would make their way through my veins. I would leave feeling fairly ok… and then I would spend a few days feeling not so good.
When I had my last session I knew that was it. I wasn’t going to be having radiation. The follow-ups I would have wouldn’t be invasive or painful (short of mammograms or blood work). It was like I had graduated from one school of Cancer with a degree in Chemo. They even gave me an angel pin to congratulate me. The rest of my education on Cancer would be in other schools and those schools are actually the ones that shape your life. You see it is how you move on from Chemo and Cancer that defines you. You are not Cancer. You are a human being and you are meant to live.
Chemo gives a Cancer patient a chance at life. The things you learn after Chemo are the things that give you permission to embrace life fully. During Chemo you don‘t have to think much. Chemo kind of does its own thing. While getting Chemo I believed at least the Cancer isn’t growing. I don’t think I truly accepted it was completely gone. With each check-up after Chemo where there was no Cancer to be found, I still held a piece of me in reserve that said it could come back. As my hair grew back and I thought about how hard it was to lose I would hope that it would never need to fall out again. But I knew that was always a possibility. I let myself eat and drink and be merry, still not 100% sure how long my life would be. And I think for a good deal of the 13 years that followed my Chemo, I moved somewhat comatose through life. Enjoying it and finding joy, but living with a silent fear.
It took me a LONG time to move on to the next college and get my next degree. I even got a diploma, a flag called BELIEF. Standing in the Survivor Circle at the Susan G Komen 3 day, looking out over the faces, many streamed with tears, I realized I had moved on to fully and completely believing I had beaten Cancer. The Chemo and surgery had done their jobs. I was not a Cancer patient. I was Cathy Youngling, age 58, living and breathing and making a difference. Cancer hadn’t killed me. It almost did. What it had done, I finally realized, was make me stronger, wiser and a fierce warrior who now could fight for others.
And as I think about Olivia and the rest of her journey, and the journey of her family, I know there is a lot ahead. There will be joy, there will be life large and small, and I know there will be silent fears. But I also know and believe they will be standing one day with flags of their own.