"You look fantastic."
Lately, I hear this statement often from well-meaning people, usually before a heartfelt touch of my arm or a tentative hug. It puzzled me at first because I certainly don't feel like I look fantastic. I'm significantly heavier than I was two years ago and unruly shoulder-length waves have replaced my long, straight hair. Like a stranger trying to decipher a foreign tongue, I finally figured out what they mean: "I'm happy you don't look like you're dying."
That was not the case roughly two years ago, when I was wan, weak and nauseated from chemotherapy treatments for my early-stage invasive breast cancer, barely able to walk from the bone pain. Or when I was bald and shuffling slowly around the house with my arms wrapped gingerly around my T-shirt-clad breasts, trying to keep the left one, burned from radiation until it was blistered, wet and peeling, from any painful swaying.
That's what you get for trying to kill us, I wanted to tell it. Don't ever do that again.
Before April Fools' Day 2011, when I learned that my body had turned on me, I spent hours each week walking, biking, swimming and practicing yoga on the beaches of my beloved Jersey shore. Lightly tanned with visible muscle definition, I looked healthier than I had in years. A lie.
The sun's kiss is gone and so are the muscles. Steroids, chemotherapy and inactivity, not to mention countless trays of gifted lasagna, added bulk to my frame. But I'm not dying — at least, not any faster than most people.
But the façade others see is not "fantastic." Worse, it hides something dark and ugly; something few ever talk about in the tumultuous rush of stages, surgical options, hormone receptors and the alphabet soup of cancer-fighting poisons. More immediate decisions need to be made about how to best battle the disease that slowly eats people from the inside out. So, many months after chemotherapy annihilated everything in its path, followed by radiation beams that obliterated even microscopic cancer cells, I feel like parts of my brain and soul were killed, too.
Complaining feels churlish. After all, I made it through the storm and my prognosis is good. Surgery, treatments, and a year of $11,000-per-session gene-targeted therapy, administered through a needle piercing my chest every three weeks, have left me with 90 percent odds of no encore appearance in my breasts, lungs, liver or some other vital organ. This is according to some unknown statistician who calculates such things.
But even those odds, a bookmaker's dream, aren't a match for the persistent and lingering worry. Cancer is master of the sucker punch. What if it's just lurking within that 10 percent margin, waiting for the moment when I'm too weak or tired to fight again? Some days, contemplating that question fills me so completely with fear that relief comes only from deep, jagged sobs expelled from my throat.
My loved ones are quick to chirp, "You're doing fine! Remember those 90 percent chances!" I've stopped reminding them that breast cancer is funny that way. There is no disease-free "magic number" that actually does mark me cured. Each mammogram, stomachache or fever threatens to hold a devastating reprise, at least in my mind.
But now that my hair is back and the pink has returned to my cheeks, I suppose I do look fine — fantastic, even. I feel increasingly like my "old" self and there are times that I even forget about how cancer changed me. I run errands, giggle with my husband and daughter, and have thoughtful conversations with colleagues. I'm back on my bike and pedaled 10 miles the last time out. I make dates with my friends to go walking and to the gym. It feels good to move and helps push the fear away. I feel stronger, both inside and out.
Still, it's a struggle to rebuild what cancer and its treatment destroyed. While the rogue cells may be dead and gone, it's difficult to trust my body again. Accepting that this is over — "looks like it's cured to me," as my oncologist likes to say — feels like tempting fate. I'm told that, as time passes, I'll feel more at ease. For now, however, I wait for everything to feel normal again, wondering why the "after" of successful cancer treatment isn't filled entirely with unfettered joy.