Ah, Feb. 14 — the day of love and romance… chocolate and flowers… candy and… radiation?
Sixteen years ago this Valentine’s Day, I had my last radiation treatment for breast cancer.
With my arms overhead, my naked body was exposed to both the chilly air of the radiation suite and the silent rays of the X-ray machine. As usual, I lay on the table counting the ceiling tiles, the ever-present country music played by this particular group of radiation techs dinning in my ears.
Finally, it was over. I slipped off the high table, donned my warm clothes, laughed at the Mickey Mouse-endorsed “graduation certificate” the techs gave me, and walked away: out of radiation-oncology, through the hospital doors, and into a chilly but bright mid-February day.
Back to normal. Ready to rejoin life as I used to know it — before cancer.
Only it didn’t turn out quite like I expected.
Sure, my hair grew back: first downy as a baby chick’s, then short and soft, then wild and curly. Finally, after a few years, it settled into its current state: vaguely wavy and oh-so-thin.
My scars faded; though still visible, they’re not the angry red-purple they were in the weeks after my three surgeries.
The chemotherapy side effects — well, some of them disappeared, while others stuck around. My eyes still burn. My chest still itches at night, waking me up at 2 a.m. in a frenzy of scratching.
And as for my brain — let’s just say I’m not nearly as quick as I used to be. Words, simple facts (my mother’s name, my own phone number) flicker in my head like fireflies. I grab ’em when I can, and fume inwardly when I can’t — which is all too often.
There’s one thing that’s changed for the better, though: me. The real me — my soul and spirit.
Never mind this shell of a body, with its skimpy hair, lined face, and aching joints. The essential me has bloomed like a flower finding the sun. And it’s all because of cancer.
The turning point came just after my diagnosis. Driving home along a winding Vermont road, I passed a highway overpass. Spray-painted on its concrete side were two words: “I love.”
No object; no clarifying thought. Just two simple words that became a mantra to me through my dark winter of chemo and radiation.
I love my friends. They bore witness as I struggled with treatment, survived a life-threatening infection, and oh-so-gradually picked up the pieces of my life and started again. They were there, holding my hands, every step of the way.
I love my colleagues at work. They covered for me, brought me food, kept me involved enough to feel “normal,” yet didn’t make unreasonable (or even reasonable) demands. They cared for me in my darkest hours — and they still do.
I love my family. They’re the rock-solid foundation upon which I’ve rebuilt my life. Robert Frost famously said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That’s my family. They take me in, no matter what.
I love my life. It’s not easy; I work two jobs to pay the bills, struggle daily with chemo brain, and worry endlessly about my son, living and working half a world away.
But in the end, I love. Friends. Colleagues. Family. Life.
Thanks to cancer, it’s as simple as that.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.