Fighting the Dark Thoughts I Have as a Cancer Patient
Looking at me, I look like a regular mom. If you passed me on the street with my short, curly hair, you wouldn’t be surprised to know I am (now) a stay-at-home mom with a husband and three young kids. I have a “mom haircut” (mostly grown back to its pre-chemo length) and, most days I’m sure, dark(ish) circles under my eyes that would lead a passerby to assume they knew my story.
But they probably wouldn’t realize that two years ago I was diagnosed with an incurable type of cancer called multiple myeloma. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But two words I never before knew existed have changed my life. They hang over my head and there is literally not a single day that goes by that they don’t affect me in some way.
On the surface I keep it together. Each day I go through the usual, chaotic routine of getting my husband and our three young children out the door. Breakfasts get made, lunches packed, backpacks checked. But as the door closes behind them and the last bus pulls away, I am left with an empty house and thoughts can start to take over.
When I first was diagnosed, I thought about having cancer. All. The. Time. When a doctor walks into your room seven days after you went into the hospital with an eye infection, says you have cancer and it’s “incurable but treatable,” that’s a phrase that’s hard to shake. He told me that years ago this would have been a death sentence, but now myeloma patients live 10 to 15 years or more after their diagnosis. I know his intention was to comfort me, but now it’s hard not to feel like I have a big countdown clock over my head. Ten to 15 years may sound like a gift, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but to the then 42-year-old me, it sounded like the death sentence I’m confident the doctor was trying to assure me it wasn’t.
When this happens you begin to think about the future a lot. During the most random moments your mind can wander and you begin to imagine what life would be like if you weren’t around for it. I don’t say this to be negative… it’s just the new reality for many cancer patients or anyone who receives news like this. When you see me and think I’m just an average mom, what you don’t see is what’s often lurking beneath the surface. That my brain is constantly racing. That each day with my husband and kids feels like another deposit into the memory bank for our family.
You don’t know that when I would pass pictures in our house I wondered if that particular photo will be used when they pull together a picture board to remember me one day. You don’t know that when I set up passwords now I always use my husband’s usual password so he won’t have to guess what it is if I’m not here to tell it to him. You don’t know that whenever I would pass an old, adorable couple I’d wonder if my husband and I will get to be that couple. Will I get to meet my grandchildren? You don’t know that every time I read an article about another celebrity dying of cancer, I rapidly scan the article to see if they had what I have.
You don’t know that I am constantly adding those 10 to 15 years to my kids’ ages and wondering what age that will make them if I’m gone. You don’t know that there isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t worry that my time will be cut short and I won’t see major milestones in their lives. Proms, graduations, weddings. But even more importantly, everyday things too. As exhausting as bedtime can be with three young kids, I still worry about how many of these snuggles I have ahead of me.
The good news is I am in remission, which has allowed me to push these dark thoughts further and further into the recesses of my brain. I am lucky to be responding well to treatment, but myeloma, like all cancers, is a tricky disease and life in general is unpredictable.
I am optimistic that I will be here for a long, long time. I have made life-changing decisions recently that put me and my health first. Science is on my side with cancer innovations coming fast and furiously. That said, I just wish I could shut my brain down. Wave some magic wand that takes all the bad thoughts away. The good news is this has gotten better over time. Each day I am further away from my initial diagnosis, I think about these things less and less. I don’t feel like I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Most of the time I try to turn my thoughts into a positive. I try to take that “you only live once” attitude and challenge or allow myself to do things I might not have otherwise done. But some days my mind still goes to dark places. If you have a friend or family member with cancer – or any illness for that matter – who seems distracted or preoccupied, give them the benefit of the doubt. You never know what’s on their mind. Generally speaking, I have tried to have a positive outlook since that fateful day. But every once in a while dark thoughts creep in. I work hard to sweep them away, sometimes more quickly and more successfully than others. During those times I grab a kid for a big snuggle and shake the doom and gloom thinking from my head. And it usually works.
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Thinkstock photo via lekcej.