Yesterday, May the Fourth, Dr. Fabulous and I began our morning at our favorite local coffee shop. We walked in and everything was randomly Star Wars themed, from the temporarily changed drink names (R2 Tea2 and The Dark Side of the Moon) to the Star Wars movie soundtrack playing in the background. When we asked our barista, she explained it was Star Wars Day. "May the fourth!" she said merrily. "You know, May the Fourth be with you."
OOOOKaaaay!! I found this exceptionally funny and also the perfect date to celebrate the end of my radiation treatments. May the Fourth be with me, indeed.
The morning ran smoother than ever. Dr. Fabulous had taken off of work for this momentous occasion and drove me in to the Cancer Center for my final day of radiation. No traffic, no hassles. Hot coffee in hand. The ladies were right there waiting for me, already congratulating me on my Graduation Day. I left my husband in the main waiting area and headed back through the maze of hallways into the private dressing rooms and smaller waiting area. I used to get so lost back there, but now I walk confidently down the halls, knowing every turn and every piece of art work on the walls. I didn't need to wait more than a minute which made me sad because I couldn't spend much time with my newest waiting room buddy, Clarissa. She is a 65 year old mother of 6 children undergoing treatment for esophogeal cancer. Since she has a big hole at the base of her throat, she can't speak. So, I talk and she writes notes and does a little pantomiming and we hold our conversations that way. She is one of several women I've met in the radiation waiting room whom I will never forget.
The "girls" in radiation were about as giddy as I. You have to understand that you see these people every single week day for a month and a half. You get to know them and they get to know you. And they are sweet people. Kind, caring, friendly and fun. I won't miss anything else about these last six weeks, but I will honestly kinda miss them.
But not enough to want to ever go back. Just makin' that clear, here.
I go back for my last time into the stark, cold radiation room. Yes, it's cold as in for real cold. It's so the machinery doesn't overheat. I know the schtick. Take off my robe, lay topless (initially mortifying, but now quite natural) with my right arm above my head and jacked up at some weird angle, head turned to the right, staring at that same spot on the wall. The ladies line me up, using the dark blue dots tattooed along my rib cage, torso and chest and the laser beams that shoot out of the walls and ceiling. The table rotates, they scootch me around, they talk about the "flash" and ask for a "half cm roll"and then the machine is moving into place. They say for the very last time: "Here we go," leave the room and dim the lights.
Every day it's been "Here we go," as they file out of the room and leave me alone with a giant futuristic monstrosity of a machine. The lights dim and usually that's when I close my eyes, right before the machine hums. I remember feeling so alone that first day. I thought I might cry. Today, I left my eyes open. I stared at the ceiling tiles, the red lights from the lasers beams, the spot on the wall, the discs in the ceiling. I heard the machine hum for a few seconds then stop. My last five treatments have been super short because they are only "boosts" to the surgical bed.
The ladies came back in, lowered the table, turned on the lights.
That was it. I was done. Session number 30 was over.
After I met one final time with my Radiation Oncologist, Dr. Fab took a video of me ringing the bell, which is the big thing you do when you are all finished treatment. I posted that sh*t on Facebook before we even left the building. Hellz yeah, it was time to shout it to the world... and yes, I'm just that annoying.
We went on to celebrate with Mexican food, Sangria and then a trip to a winery before heading home to hug my girls, eat pizza and celebrate more with family who came over bearing flowers and cake.
I'm closing this chapter with pomp and circumstance, but there is a quieter space in me that knows this chapter is not truly closed. It will be part a greater narrative; my bigger story.
I have said, both to myself and others, that I am putting this all behind me and returning to "normal life." But, yesterday what I realized is that you don't put things like this behind you. You carry them with you. Certainly, you don't return to who you were. Sure, on the surface I will be much the same. Life will resume its regular pace, cancer will become a faded memory, and after a while we all will forget that I ever even had breast cancer. With the exception of a boob that looks like it went through a shark attack followed by World War III, I will physically return to homeostasis. Even my crazy boob will heal over time, leaving only faded scars and a few dark blue permanent "freckles" on my skin (which I hate, by the way).
It's behind me, but it's also within me. I take it all with me. I take the courage I mustered, the moments I broke, the fortitude, the strength and the fragility. I take the kindness given to me by so many and the disappointment of a few who showed surprising apathy. The truth is that a cancer diagnosis brings out the best in others. People show you what you mean to them. Unfortunately, the flip side is also true. Cancer reveals who will be there for you and sometimes it isn't the people you might expect. That too, shows you what you mean to them. It's an unfortunate side effect of getting cancer, but you just gotta accept their responses (or lack thereof) as data, without judgement, and readjust your sails.
I take the new friendships I have gained through this experience. People I've never known who have inspired me, cared for me like I was family, and showed me what being a true friend looks like. I take the things I have seen at the Cancer Center and the stories I have been told. Sad stories. Endings quite different from my own. Endings that, I'm acutely aware, could be mine with a simple freak roll of the dice. No one is exempt and though my odds are extremely favorable, I'm no longer naive enough to believe I am above anything. I am a fortunate one, but there is no guarantee that I will forever be. That doesn't bum me out or make me anxious, actually. It empowers me. It makes me feel alive and whole and appreciative. Knowing your life is ultimately out of your control can ironically make you happier. Or, at least that's how it works with me.
Today, a blogger friend shared a NY Times article on her Facebook page titled What Suffering Does. I found it very compelling, particularly at this point in my life. He talked about how we are constantly trying to create a state of happiness, yet the difficult times in our lives are what truly shape us. I think my favorite line had to do with what happens after facing adversity. He wrote:
"People don't come out healed; they come out different."
Everything is the same, but everything is different. I'm back to me, but I'm not the same me. All the things behind me, in front of me, around me, and within me — all of these twists in the road have made me who I am, for better or for worse. Hopefully, for better.
May the Fourth be with me.
May the Fourth be with us all.