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Turns out Cancer Is Hard

Hell if I know why I keep thinking I’m so different and special than everyone effing else. And f*&% if life just keeps giving me the shittiest reminders that, indeed, I am not.

Like you (and you and you and you and you), I wasn’t supposed to get cancer. Because we’re all invincible, right? Because these things happen to other people, right? Then I went ahead, got a mammogram to check the damn thing off my I-turned-40-and-this-is-what-you’re-supposed-to-do list and found out I had breast cancer.

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Fast-forward to a bilateral mastectomy on February 14, then to clean pathology results on February 18th, and I’m supposed to be embracing life! Celebrating air! And joy! And children! And Internet kitten pictures!

And instead, I’m depressed as shit. Crying for no reason and every reason. Part of the reason is these goddamn drains sewn into either side of my chest. They are gross and uncomfortable and a constant reminder that, until they come out, my real healing can’t really begin in earnest.

The surgeons and their lovely, awesome, amazing, warm and wonderful nurses warned me up the wazoo beforehand that young women, especially who have bilateral mastectomies, think that once their surgery is over, and they’ve beaten cancer, they can resume life immediately.

“But the more you move your arms, the longer the drains will stay in,” one nurse told me. “Don’t vacuum, move furniture or iron once you get home,”

I laughed. Hard. “Clearly we haven’t met,” I told her.

It was difficult enough to move once leaving the hospital. A physical therapist had to teach me how to get in and out of bed, how to walk up and down stairs. My husband kept vigil at my bedside with painkillers when I’d wake up those first few nights out of the hospital and the meds had worn off and the agony of my entire upper body rendered me nearly unable to breathe because of the constant spiky aches and thorny pains.

I hate feeling sad about something that is temporary.

I didn’t expect at my one-week post-op appointment for the drains to come out, even though one plastic surgeon (although not the one I ultimately chose to perform my surgery) said some women do get their drains out then. At the two-week post-op visit, I held a little vigil, but wasn’t surprised when it didn’t happen. And then the day before my three-week visit, a friend advised I call the doctor’s office and let them know how little my drains were producing. Or, rather how much they were producing. And when they need to be producing little in order to have them removed, getting them out now seems further and further and further from reality.

So I called up the doctor’s office, told them what was up and the nurse canceled my appointment.

“Even if your numbers drop a lot the rest of today,” she said, “it’s still not enough for them to come out tomorrow. They have to be low for a couple of days.”

That’s when my waterworks started. I know a bilateral mastectomy is major surgery. I know the recovery time is supposed to be six weeks. I know I was told not to be a hero. But somehow, I still thought I’d be the exception.

“You’re no Wonder Woman, kid,” my dad told me softly on the phone as I wept while telling him my drain-removal appointment had to be rescheduled. “You’re just a human being. “You’re super, but you have no super powers.”

If I had just one super power at this point, however, it would be to stop being the walking definition of insanity, and expect that I am not any different than anyone else. I am not above cancer. I am not above prolonged recoveries. I am not above feeling depressed when every sign should indicate happiness.

Thankfully, I’m also not above admitting and talking about my feelings to close friends and people who are trained to deal with this professionally. It’s amazing how the power of conversation can heal some wounds, even if they aren’t the ones I need to be able to start showering again (have I mentioned you’re not allowed to shower until the drains are out? Which means I’m on 3+ weeks without a shower? Yes, you are now excused from being anywhere within a 10-mile radius of me and my very distinctive body odor).

I hate feeling sad about something that is temporary. A friend reminded me of that early period after giving birth when the days and nights are so long and seem never-ending—but when you look back at that time in your life, you realize it was so relatively short. It just didn’t feel that way when you were in it.

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And my dad reminded me about that time not so long ago when I wasn’t sure which end was up with my cancer, i.e., whether it was invasive and worse than perhaps the doctors suspected, and that all I wished and prayed for with all my might was for it to be not bad. And that if it weren't, that I promised I'd be more grateful and thankful in general.

He told me to get back to that place and that promise I made to myself. And I’m trying. Really, I am. But it’s not easy. No one said cancer would be. But I wasn’t supposed to get it. So when you put it all together? Man, reminding yourself how special you’re not is especially painful.

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