I Wasn't Prepared for How Cancer Would Change My Mind


As Americans, we seem fully willing to acknowledge that our bodies are a work in progress. We have no problem telling someone how many hours we spent at the gym, how many pounds we lifted, how many miles we logged this week. Our FitBits celebrate our steps, MapMyRun shares our routes and times with the world, countless workout selfies and pictures of chia seed-laden smoothies serve as “fitspiration” to keep us on track. There is no shame in proclaiming to the world our progress toward our body goals.

My body goals have very little to do with my mile time these days. I’m not working toward the perfect six pack or buns of steel. I’m just really psyched to have an essentially functional arm, and I’m working exceedingly hard at breathing these days. If I had a little gidgy to count the number of hours I have spent over the past 17 months in physical therapy, (trying to) exercise, visiting specialists, redesigning my wardrobe, attempting this or that new technique, or simply flat on my back in a tube being imaged, all in the name of getting my body to cooperate, I would be rocking the celebratory confetti.

So last week, after a particularly miserable episode of feeling like I was either going to A) drown or B) be poisoned, thanks to an overabundance of stagnant lymphatic fluid hanging out in my upper torso, I happened upon a snippet of a video that posed the question, “What if we worked on our minds in the same way we worked on our bodies?” The speaker was noting how willing we are to work on our physical selves, but our subsequent inability or unwillingness, thanks to our classic American reticence, to talk about our emotional well-being.

Full stop.

There was never a doubt that I would have help regaining my strength or range of motion, and it has taken an impressive team of experts, including oncologists, surgeons, neurologists, physical and occupational therapists, and chiropractors to get me to where I am today. Last March, when I started manifesting symptoms of lymphedema, I added even more members to my already full roster of health professionals, including three different physical therapists, professional compression garment fitters, skilled tailors, and soon, acupuncturists. As frustrating as it can be that my body still doesn’t function in a way I would like, all of this was essentially expected. There was never any question that I couldn’t do this alone.

So why did it take a team of wild horses (and my best friends, my wife, and my mom) to get me to agree to at least walk through the door of an oncological therapist? And why did it take me over a year to do it?

I grew up the proud product of rock stubborn Irish stock. One of my mother’s favorite sayings, proffered countless times as I lay in a heap of reins at the feet of some horse is, “Are you bleeding? No? Buck up. It’s a long way from your heart.” This woman has severed her big toe and finished barn chores and taken a hammer to the face and continued building (separate incidences, but no less hard core). Couple this with the fact that she was the primary caregiver for my grandmother for a lifetime and you get someone with very little tolerance for nonsense and shenanigans. And while she has never treated me with anything but kindness, understanding, and softer kid gloves than I ever would have expected through this entire cancer ordeal, there is an undeniable vein of steel that permeates my consciousness, one that has frequently served me quite well. Stand strong, work hard, be independent. We don’t do wussy here.

When I learned about my cancer, the radiation, surgeries, potential side effects, and, you know, the possibility of dying, I truly didn’t expect for it to have a profound effect on me. I thought, Suck it up, Buttercup. Many people have been through so much worse. I thought I would be able to buck up, get back on the horse, and continue life as usual without much interruption. But for so many varied reasons, that has not been the case. And mentally, emotionally, I was not prepared. I was not prepared for anxiety, depression, and fear. I certainly wasn’t prepared to need help doing something about it. And for all of that I have felt so damn weak.

Cancer changes your life. It changes your body, your health, your job, your family, your sense of safety, stability, and well-being. It changes you. No matter how hard I wanted to believe that wouldn’t be the case when I was first diagnosed, no matter how hard I have fought for it to not be true after my surgeries, there is simply no denying this fact. Trust me, I tried for all I was worth.

This week, thanks to more body work, I achieved 15-20 degrees more range of motion in my arm. No one knew if this would be possible, and in fact, there was no indication that it would be. I also went to therapy and talked about my life adjusting to cancer. I didn’t think that would be possible. The fact that my body still shows signs of growth, rather than being frozen in the static state it has been stuck in for the past year, gives me hope. And more than simply giving me hope for strength and mobility in my arm, it gives me hope that my mind will continue to grow, adjust, and settle, as well. There is no shame in working on it. Now if I can only find an app that will deliver chocolate every time I hit a new milestone.

This post originally appeared on Caring Bridge.

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