Celebrating 5 years of Being Cancer Free

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Five years ago today, I finished four months of chemotherapy, leaving the infusion suite for the final time with a queasy stomach, a sore arm, and a smile on my face. It felt like the last day of school, with the nurses standing in for teachers: “No more needles, no more drugs; no more nurses’ IV tugs!”

    I looked one last time at the sick folks around me, and bade them a mental “be well.” One final time, I closed my eyes as I passed the kids’ section, still not able to bear the sight of 4- and 8- and 13-year olds, their heads bald, their bodies wasted, but light in their eyes; kids being kids despite everything nature and bad luck could throw at them. To this day, the thought of those children–not all of them made it–brings a lump to my throat.
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    I left the hospital sure I’d seen the last of it till January, when I’d begin radiation. After chemo, I was convinced radiation would be a piece of cake. Going in for a daily 3-minute zap? I can do that! My simulation, where they’d tattoo the “bulls-eyes” on my rebuilt chest, was 3 weeks distant. Till then, goodbye, hospital!

    As it turned out, I enjoyed exactly 2 weeks of freedom before landing in the hospital once again, this time fighting a neutropenic fever: infection resulting from a low white blood cell count, itself the result of chemo. I spent a long 7 days in isolation, getting stick after stick with needles for blood tests and antibiotics–in my already ravaged arms, in my hands, behind my knees, and finally in my feet. I believe it was ultimately willpower that pulled me out of what turned into pneumonia; I was darned if I was going to spend the holidays in a hospital bed! I left the hospital 3 days before Christmas, clanking, hissing oxygen tank in tow, and went home. Freedom never felt so good.

    Radiation was indeed a piece of cake; the hardest part about it was figuring out how to put on a hospital gown with three armholes. (Yes, three; if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t yet dealt with the “modernized” hospital johnny!) I finished radiation on Valentine’s Day, and opened the door on the next part of my life.

    Where have those 5 years brought me? My life has changed; I’ve felt an inner tectonic shift, my mind and soul rearranging themselves into a much more solid, more comfortable position. I’ve given up guilt (for the most part). I’m no longer into blame, regret, or fear of the future. “I should have” and “If only I’d” no longer cross my lips. Instead, my mantra is “The only thing I can control is my own attitude.” I work hard every day to think positively and remain stress-free, no matter how many work deadlines loom, or how tall the stack of bills in the desk drawer grows.

    Has it been smooth sailing, these past 5 years? Of course not. I have lingering, irritating side effects. I gained a lot of weight, then lost it. I’ve been on Tamoxifen, and now Arimidex. My joints ache; my ribs are sore; I’m itchy, and one shoulder is permanently stiff, all due to drugs or radiation or surgery. But I’ve gained confidence in myself, that I can fight a big battle and win. I’ve surprised myself with what a good friend I can be, especially to women going through treatment. And I’ve discovered that life–just life, nothing more than living and breathing–is good. Very, very good indeed. And I have no intention of letting go of it for a good long time. Happy anniversary–to all of us forging our own paths through Life After Cancer.
Published On: November 30, 2006