crossing week 18 off the calendar

calendar with dates crossed off

Another chemo milestone – the 3-week followup to my final chemo infusion. They tested my blood and I’m no longer immunosuppressed.

The good news is that I can gradually resume my aikido training, finally getting back on the mat after 18 weeks of avoiding germs.

Arriving here is bittersweet, however. Cancer treatment changed my focus, or so I thought. I was trying to live in the moment, taking each day as it came. What I’m realizing, though, is that I was still very future-focused. I was crossing off the days of my chemo treatment, waiting for the pot of gold at the end of week 18.

Yes, chemo is behind me now. Yes, I’m feeling better and better every day. Yes, I can return to my regular life soon.

And yet…

There’s also a kind of emptiness. Like a lottery winner, I’m realizing that what I hoped for isn’t enough to magically change my life for the better.

I’m still dealing with side effects from the chemo. I’m fatigued (although it’s getting gradually better). My crotch is itchy and irritated from my-doctors-don’t-know-what. (I’ve had negative tests for yeast and bacteria. It’s probably contact dermatitis.)

I went to aikido class last night for the first time in 18 weeks, marked through the warm-up, and then sat on the sidelines for the rest of the class. Not exactly the brilliant comeback I’d fantasized about during the most hellish days on chemo.

There’s a wonderful blog post I read several weeks ago, written by a physician who has cancer. In it she talks about the opposite of the fear of death: the fear of living.

While I had faced the fear of death and stood up to it, there was a new kind of fear I had yet to meet—the fear of life. There is a fear you feel when you think you’re going to die, but there is a different, almost more terrifying kind of fear you feel when you realize, after experiencing a traumatic event, that you’re going to live. Now I had to confront the proposition of having to piece my life back together, of needing to deal with all the petty annoyances of living, of re-learning how to not just get through the day, but plan for the future. Questions like, How will I work? How will I take care of myself? Who will love me?

The questions are so encompassing and they loom over me so largely that, for now, I consider them only briefly before I reorient myself back to the moment. Because there is laundry to do and bills to pay and doctors appointments I need to get to, and now it’s been a few hours so I need to start thinking about lunch. There’s an avocado in the fridge that will go bad soon so maybe I’ll make a quesadilla. But my body hurts and my soul is tired, so for a moment I’ll just put my hand over my heart and breathe.

These words really resonate with me. I understand them in my bones. I’ve been living in the often-scary but strangely-comforting cocoon of chemotherapy treatment for five months, and now that part of my life is over. I’d figured out how to deal with chemo. Now I need to figure out how to live as a cancer survivor.