The end of breast cancer treatment is near – and then what?

It’s 4am and I can’t sleep, so here I am again in front of my laptop. It is days before Thanksgiving and the end of breast cancer treatment is near. It is all I can think about. Yesterday, I had an extra Sunday session to make up for the Thanksgiving holiday. That treatment was #27 of 30. I am so close to the end.

It just so happens that my final treatment is the day before Thanksgiving. I should be planning our Thanksgiving dinner and getting excited about the impending winter storm that will blanket my yard in snow the night before. I should be happy and ready to celebrate this ending. I’m not.

Wednesday marks the end of one segment of the experience of breast cancer and the beginning of another. A few weeks after my final radiation treatment, I will start on a 5-year course of Tamoxifen, a drug that will essentially starve any leftover cancer cells of estrogen. For women with hormone-positive breast cancer, Tamoxifen is the routine course of treatment and it can come with nasty side effects.

But, I am jumping the gun.

Here’s where I am today: the dark circles under my eyes are worse. It’s the radiation fatigue, I think. No amount of sleep can erase the tiredness that weighs down my body and my mind. Without makeup, I look tired and slightly haggard – kind of like I partied too hard for a few days. Too Faced Tinted Beauty Balm helps me look like a normal person during the day. Lots of coffee helps me think and act like a normal person during the day.

The skin across my left breast has seen better days. I am scarred from surgery and burned from the radiation. Only a few people know what this looks like – my husband, my radiation team, my oncologist and my surgeon – but, most importantly, I know what this looks like. I look down and I don’t recognize myself. I know I still have weeks of healing to do. The effects of radiation are cumulative both ways. It will take a few weeks for my skin to recover and for me to resume healing from surgery. Radiation slows down healing and aggravates the scars I already have. Radiation is a bitch.

I still have nerve pain across my chest. I had a lumpectomy on both sides and on some days the nerve regeneration feels like an electrical storm across my chest. This is a good thing, I tell myself, because the nerves are firing. That means they are growing back. This pain is all for a good reason.

Did I do the right thing by keeping my breast? I ask myself this question all the time. Did I make the right choice? I think I did. I hope that I did. It’s too late to turn back now anyway. I can’t go back at this moment and tell them to remove my breast. I have come so far and suffered through so much. I have to keep going. I can’t go back and ask for a do-over.

What if the cancer comes back? I ask myself this question all the time too. Unfortunately, no one can answer that for me. These days, cancer patients aren’t declared “cancer-free” anymore. There is “living beyond breast cancer” and “survivorship” but there is no final certification that you are, in fact, free of cancer. The truth is: they can’t tell. No doctor on this planet can tell me if there is still a cancer cell that is floating around my body right now and whether that cell will remain dormant for years and then come back to kill me.

I started reading After Breast Cancer: A Common-Sense Guide to Life After Treatment last week. It is helping me realize that all of these feelings of worry and doubt and fear are normal, and that I am not alone in what is happening to me as I face the end of breast cancer treatment. There is a passage from the book that I can’t stop thinking about: “This book is about your new life. You will never be the same woman you were before you had cancer. Your life will never be the same. Longing for what was will not return it to you.”

I haven’t taken the time to mourn the loss of “old me” yet. That will come soon – after the doctor’s appointments and daily treatment ends. I will have time to take better stock of where I am, who I am, and what I have lost and gained. That is fitting for Thanksgiving, I suppose.

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Read my continuing posts about breast cancer. 

 

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