I woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented and heavy with dreams. I stumbled into the bathroom, holding on to my right breast out of protection instinct and new habit, and while washing my hands looked at myself in the mirror.
I do not look the same. My face is different. I have a cast on me, a grey shadow. I do not feel the same, either. I feel like something more than cancer got cut out.
I learned from another “pink sister” that I should never have my BP or blood drawn from my cancer side again. That it can cause lymphedema, which is in itself excruciatingly painful.
You guys. Why don’t doctors tell the whole truth? WHY do they leave things out? This story has only been a reality for me for a just a little over a month and I’ve already lost quite a bit of faith in the medical establishment.
Maybe I’m impatient because I’m so damn sore. I’m sore if I don’t wear the compression bra, and I’m sore if I wear it. It makes me feel like I’m in a tight binding, a corset. I feel like my lungs are being compressed. I’m not a fan of this. I’m simultaneously missing work and normalcy and terrified about what work is going to be like in the future.
In my first two years teaching Kindergarten I had a co-teacher, Karen, that had metastatic breast cancer. It had been her fight for 12 years when I met her. She was tough and larger than life. And yet, for those two years, she would increasingly come to the doorway of my classroom and ask me to watch her class. She had to rush to the bathroom. She had to take multiple sets of extra clothing to work with her.
Since this breast cancer journey started for me, I’ve thought non-stop about Karen. Watching what she went through is my teaching with cancer real life experience. She had a quilt in her classroom that her students and parents made for her while she was home after one of her surgeries. As a co-teacher she was really hard on me, kind of mean, even, but sometimes I deserved the tough love. Other times, well, I can forgive it knowing how much pain she was in.
Last night Karen showed up in my dreams. She looked like the picture of health, all shiny and happy, clear and smiling. She looked so deeply into my eyes and grabbed me in a huge embrace. I could feel her arms on me, and there is nothing you can say that won’t make me think that Karen came down from heaven to give me a hug last night.
Karen died in my third year teaching Kindergarten, in 2018, after 14 years of fighting this. She tried to start the year, but I knew she was diminished. She was grey. She couldn’t set up her room. She looked ready. A few months later, she was gone.
She fought hard and never wanted to stop doing her normal. She’d get up at 430 AM, take care of her 500+ head of sheep and sundry other animals, and then come to Kindergarten to prep by 7 AM. She did not stop. She kept going. She would change out of her soiled clothes after rushing to the bathroom and be back in the room hanging out with 5 year olds, even if it happened multiple times a day in the end. I saw it all, I was right there sharing walls with her and watching her class. She was very private and very proud, and is rolling her eyes at me for talking about it. But what she also knows, and I know this now, too, is that letting people help you is okay. And working as much as I can will be salve or my soul, just like it was for her.
I realized how much Karen was hanging out with me last week when I named my surgery hippo after her husband Maurice last week.
I will keep showing up at work starting Monday. And I promise to ask for help if I need it. And I promise to show up, Tuesday, too. And the next day. And the next.
Thanks for showing up for me, Karen. I needed that hug.
We can do hard things.