Breast Cancer Comics: Five Years After Finishing Breast Cancer Treatment

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • With Breast Cancer Comics by Dash Shaw

    It's been five years since I finished treatment for breast cancer, the demon that claimed my breast, my good health, and my blithe assumption that I’d live a long life.  Five years ago, climbing off that cold radiation table for the final time, I felt relief at being done–-at going back to a “normal” life, one that didn’t include daily trips to the hospital, frequent blood tests, and the uncomfortable feeling that every appointment had the potential for bad news.

    After the Breast Cancer Treatment is Over

    I was also scared; I felt what so many of us feel, when we’re finally done with breast cancer treatment: Who’s going to take care of me now? As I got into my car and drove out of the cancer treatment parking lot for the final time–-love those VIP parking spots!–-I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and felt the next part of my life opening up before me. Within months, reality struck. I felt better, but nowhere near as good as I’d felt before cancer.

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    Tingling and Itching in My Reconstructed Breast

    The right side of my chest, with its perky new reconstructed breast, tingled and itched. My right shoulder ached, the result of major surgery that should have been followed by physical therapy, but wasn’t.

    Attention, Ladies: Insist on PT after a mastectomy and/or breast reconstruction, even if your doc says you don’t need it.

    Stamina, Neuropathy and My Feet

    My feet were a painful reminder of the neuropathy that sometimes follows chemo. And I seemed to have lost every bit of stamina I’d ever had; 30 minutes on the treadmill left me sweating and panting, where before I’d scarcely noticed my legs were moving. Oh well, I thought; time heals. I have to be patient.

    A year later, I felt better, but not nearly as good as I’d hoped. Gradually, through regular trips to the gym, my stamina was improving. I hadn’t yet worked up to the heavy weights I’d been lifting before cancer, but month by month, I was lifting a bit more. My feet still hurt; and every morning I’d find myself raked with scratch marks, evidence of an itch in my chest that just wouldn’t quit. My shoulder was getting worse, as I put off dealing with the ache. OK, I thought; give it time. Be patient.

    When Will I Feel "Strong and Alive" Again?

    Another year went by, and I kept wondering when I’d feel better. When I’d feel strong and alive, like I’d felt before cancer. Finally, like anything that occupies your mind for a long stretch of time, I stopped wondering. I told myself, “This is the way it’s going to be. Move on. Deal with it.” And I did.

    Five Years Later

    Now, five years later, I DO feel better. Two years ago, I finally decided to face head on some of the issues I’d been putting up with, hoping they’d disappear on their own. The aching feet? Turned out I had arthritis. An intensive 4-month course of ibuprofen reduced the pain to the point I barely noticed it; and now, nearly 2 years later, my feet don’t hurt at all. The sore shoulder? I won a battle with the insurance company over coverage, and with the help of some wonderful, caring physical therapists–-and a couple of cortisone shots–-my shoulder is much better. It still aches occasionally, but usually after lifting weights, and it’s a good ache, a tired, “I challenged myself” ache, and it fades quickly.

  • Bye-Bye, Chemo Brain!

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    Best of all, the chemo brain that descended on me five years ago, fogging my sharp mind, has started to dissipate. I go longer and longer stretches without having to look up my own number in the phone book, or consult a thesaurus for the vocabulary that used to come so effortlessly. The words are coming back to me–-not effortlessly, but they’re there, appearing out of that same fog into which they disappeared after chemo.

    Change happens. Time heals. If you’ve given up believing you’ll ever feel better… don’t. Whatever’s bothering you, call your doctor and see if there’s anything you can try, maybe something that wasn’t available when the issue first appeared. Most important of all, believe that sooner or later, you WILL feel better. Positive change often happens more slowly than we’d like, but time heals, it truly does. Believe it.

    Contact Dash -- Let Breast Cancer Comics Tell Your Story!

    If you would like Dash Shaw to illustrate your story as a breast cancer comic strip, put your thoughts in a SharePost, and we'll find you! You can also send a message directly to Dash, if you have questions or suggestions. Thanks!

Published On: May 14, 2007