On November 16, 2018, my seven-month odyssey with cancer ended. I'd endured six chemotherapy sessions every 21 days, followed by daily radiation treatments over four weeks. Just before Thanksgiving, it was all over.
But that's not the whole story.
Even though my treatments were finally behind me, the fall-out of facing cancer was not.
Just seven days after radiation, my back began to ache. When I visited my oncologist a few days later for an-already scheduled appointment, he spent our time making sure that I understood how my body would shift and change in the wake of such an assault over many months.
That made sense, so I left there feeling more settled.
Until the next morning when the ache radiated from my back to my sternum, with an obvious line of lesions forming across my torso. Yep, shingles!
But you guys already knew that. I wrote about it (here).
Days later, I celebrated Thanksgiving with a house full of people who love me. It was difficult to get through the day with dry eyes; my gratitude list was so long, and I was so overwhelmingly thankful...for everything.
December flew by with Christmas preparations, which included the infamous Christmas tree lighting at the center of our town square. I joined my oldest son with his family and we enjoyed hot chocolate, pictures, Santa arriving by fire truck, visiting with friends, and Christmas music. It was a festive night and I felt healthy and strong.
But as I walked back to my car, alone, I began to cry.
"What if this is my last Christmas?"
The question nagged at me the entire month.
And the aches in the body kept shifting. The shingles rash disappeared quickly, but the continuing symptoms did not.
Today, nearly three months later, I still feel like my entire upper back is sunburned. It has a faint tan to it from radiation, but I am not at all sunburned. But whenever someone hugs me, I feel it; when my clothes rub against my back, I feel it; when I stretch, I feel it. It feels like I'd just spent a week on the beach.
My doc told me that I actually am burned beneath my skin, so stretching my back is a curative exercise. It helps pull at the places that feel taught with scar tissue and soften them so I don't feel so achy.
I guess it's critical that I return to yoga more consistently, then.
My right breast, where the shingles rash began, feels numb with intermittent jolts of electric pain stinging my chest, if only for nanoseconds at a time. Since shingles is a virus affecting the nerves, this makes sense, but it's still frustratingly annoying.
There is a muscle on the inside of each of my scapulas that cramps up, on-and-off throughout the day, usually without cause. Fortunately, the knots never appear at the same time, which is reason to celebrate.
My sternum aches throughout the day, which gets my attention since it's the same kind of ache that I'd been experiencing, off and on, for months before diagnosis.
I'm hypersensitive to this area of my body since a muscle cramp started the cascade of obvious symptoms last April, just before diagnosis in early May. I sometimes still sleep with a heating pad, either on my chest or under my back, and every day I wonder, "Does this new ache mean the cancer is returning?"
I try very hard not to entertain that worry for long. It's both futile and a waste of my time.
But it's there, just the same.
After a post-chemotherapy and radiation PET scan last week, I met with my oncologist this morning to discuss the results. He also put my mind at ease (again!) regarding the ever-changing, annoying, and perfectly normal aches in my torso.
Happily, it is all a result of radiation, and my body's attempt to repair itself.
I am in awe of my body's capacity to restore what was once covered in cancer.
So it came as little surprise that all of my labs were within normal ranges, my LDH level was still normal, and my PET scan was still clear!
I don't have to return to my oncologist for THREE. WHOLE. MONTHS!
On February 23rd of last year, I took my first and last vacation of 2018. Just a few days before getting on a plane to fly over the Pacific, I had what I thought was a nose bleed, but when I looked at the tissue, the color was highlighter yellow.
Knowing that only cerebral spinal fluid is that color, I immediately called my doc. I certainly didn't want to board a plane if something was terribly wrong, but she assured me that I probably had a bit of a sinus infection. I didn't really believe it since I've never had one in my life, and felt no other symptoms, but I accepted her casual diagnosis and spent a beautiful ten days in Hawaii with one of my sisters.
I now wonder if my body was already trying to alert me that something was, indeed, terribly wrong.
It would be two more months before my back began to ache, and another few weeks after that when I experienced the pain across my chest that took me to my doctor. A week after that, I was diagnosed.
But next week, exactly one year after this all began, I will again board a plane to the other coast to be with my family.
I have come full circle.
With a second cancer-free PET scan behind me, I have successfully found my own lane.
And I have won.