I Am Stronger Than the Cancer That Tried to Kill Me
Cliches become useful because they reference important life lessons and truths in just a few words. There are two cliches that embody the spirit of Survivorship to me.
- Embrace your scars. They are proof that you are stronger than that which tried to kill you.
- Embrace the aging process. Old age is a privilege denied to many.
Scars? I don’t see any scars
There are four modes of treatment for cancer -- chemotherapy, precision medicine, radiation, and surgery. A patient may have one or two of them or a combination of all of them. Some leave scars you see, most leave scars you do not.
When you see a patient in active treatment there are outward signs of the processes and most we have come to recognize -- the head balding from chemotherapy, the extreme loss of weight. You can spot us walking with procedure masks, surgical gloves or wrapped heads. These are the outward physical manifestations of our body’s efforts to overcome cancer.
We learn to live with them and more. Much more. And we come to accept these manifestations because they prove outwardly that we are triumphing over cancer. The scariest enemy of them all. We embrace the manifestations and the scars because it means, that for today, at least, we are on the right side of the ground.
As we grow stronger and begin to lose those physical manifestations of cancer you may not realize we are still deeply scarred. The hair grows back, we gain weight, we can go out in public and not be terrified that we may pick up a germ that will kill us. But there are challenges you don’t see. And we live with them. Treatments leave scars that offer challenges you cannot see. So please allow us extra space to work with them. They’re troublesome, yes but we embrace them because it means we are still here. Still overcoming.
Invisible scars don’t have to be emotional
I’ll describe a few of them so you’ll know. The chemo, you don’t think of chemo as leaving scars, but it does. Where cancer replaced healthy tissue, chemo and precious soon therapies have replaced cancer with scar tissue. Scar tissue does not breathe. So breathing becomes difficult for us, especially when we exert ourselves.
Chemo destroys tiny nerve endings, we may have trouble standing, walking, feeling or touching because of neuropathy. Our hands and feet may always be cold. Chemo destroys the cilia in our ears and our noses. The nose cilia may regrow, the ear cilia do not. Many of us live with permanent tinnitus. Chemo also destroys our hearing and so we become a bit deaf. If we ask you to speak louder please understand it’s the work of our scars.
Radiation leaves scars both visible and invisible. Some appear right away, some may take years to develop. The external scars are obvious, the internal, not so much. Radiation runs through cancer obliterating its DNA so it can’t replicate but it continues on to healthy tissue injuring it as it passes through. Sometimes the muscle that it passes through becomes fused to other tissue and sinew. The scarring prevents full healing and range of motion. Give us a little extra time to complete a task. It’s the scars slowing us. Some may experience something called radiation recall which may take years to develop. It looks like a terrible splotchy rash but it is normal skin that discolors due to medications. Don’t be afraid to touch us. It’s only a scar, it can’t hurt you.
Embracing your age
Aging is a privilege denied many. I’ve discussed that elsewhere so I won’t dwell on this except to say many of us strive to overcome the cancer. We strive to live for our son’s wedding, the first grandchild and every other milestone that you look for. Many will not make it but those of us who do hold each moment evermore precious for having the experience.
Normal aging is difficult. Overcoming the scars that cancer causes only amplifies it. But dammit, we earned those scars. We paid dearly for those scars and they are proof that today we are stronger than the cancer that tried to kill us. I bear mine proudly.
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