I sometimes feel like a bystander in this whole cancer mess. The fight is not really between me and the disease. Right now it’s between chemo and the disease. I have very little to do with the whole thing really. Basically, I show up to all of my appointments, follow the rules of treatment to the letter, and try hard not to die. That’s my job in its entirety. Like a child of a bad divorce, the battle between chemo and cancer has some adverse effects on me, but there’s not much I can do about it.
Between rounds 5 and 6 of chemotherapy, I had a mini surgery called a Port-A-Cath insertion. This is where a quarter sized diaphragm with an attached catheter is placed under my skin.
The catheter leads to the main artery near my heart. Since the port is easily felt under my skin (located just under my collar bone), my nurse can access it, rather than a vein in my arm. This is handy when it comes not only to my last 3 chemotherapy visits but for the 17 Herceptin infusions that I will receive over the next year. People keep asking me if I have a problem with my veins. I somehow feel offended when they do. My ego knows no bounds. My veins are perfectly healthy and I’d like to keep them that way. This port will do the trick nicely. The procedure is a very common one and takes about an hour altogether. I was awake for it with some freezing and a dose of fentanyl. You know that drug that everyone keeps overdosing on? I had that. An hour later I was on my way home with a bracelet and a few cards explaining that I have a port so that I can get through security at the airport.
Here’s the thing. None of this really bothered me in any way. It all seemed completely matter-of-fact. Is that what happens when you have cancer? “You want to open me up and put a device under my skin?” “Sure! No problem at all.” “What? I’ll be awake for it? Whatever you think is best.“ Being bald with a device under my skin now makes me feel a bit sci-fi chic incidentally.
I’m not sure if I’m brave or naive or what has happened but I am only struck by fear very occasionally in all of this. When did I become so resilient? I only know it’s bizarre when I tell it to other people and see their faces. I don’t really think I’m special or different at all. I think it’s the human spirit. There is something about us that is truly remarkable. For me, I think of people who lose their eyesight but then learn to snowboard down a mountain with a guide dog. I’m in awe, convinced that I couldn’t possibly shave my legs without eyesight, never mind barrel down a hill. A very close friend of mine was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease and she now works out 5 days a week and organizes a yearly fundraiser that has raised close to $150000 for research. These are the kind of people I’m talking about.
We are stronger than we think but we don’t know it’s there until we are tested. We have babies, we lose loved ones, and we get cancer. We face pain and sadness and misfortune but we are resilient. I’m not brave, WE are brave. There are countless women fighting breast cancer every single day and they are doing exactly what I am doing. It’s likely the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do but I doubt any are in a hurry to throw in the towel. They face hair loss, breast loss, sickness and pain but you can bet they will do what it takes to live. I have a new respect and understanding of people who call themselves survivors and for those who didn’t make it no matter how hard they tried.
Two weeks after my diagnosis, I received a message from The Weather Network’s Maritime reporter, Nathan Coleman. He told me that he had been interviewing Mary-Lynn Dickson, the Director of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and she had a gift that she wanted him to pass along to me. UNCLOS is responsible for mapping the Arctic. On a recent voyage on the Louis S. St-Laurent, tiny cups, beautifully decorated by Walta-Anne Rainey, were lowered 4200 feet below the Arctic. The Geological Survey of Canada calls them “North Pole Cups”. Mary-Lynn wanted to show me that, despite the pressure of the ocean, these tiny cups remained intact and demonstrated “resiliency”. She wanted me to have one and said that “Everyone at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography was rooting for me.“
I’m sure I could not have received a more symbolic gift. One day I will emerge from this pressure, changed but intact. It’s not because I’m a superhero. It’s because I’m human and that’s what we do.
This blog is dedicated to Colleen Scruton Edwards who was one of the bravest out there. Ovarian cancer stole her from us yesterday. It was far too soon.