Off Duty

Two weeks from today, provided there are no airplane delays, riots, floods or unwelcome and unforeseen side effects (such as a right thumb the size of a blimp) from treatment, I will be eating my breakfast in the United States of America (say that with a Southern drawl, please, emphasis on the “YOU”).

After those two short weeks I will have completed not only chemotherapy but also radiotherapy. Of course my treatment will technically continue for some time because I am now on Tamoxifen (endocrine therapy) and will remain on it for the next five years. I waited for two weeks after getting the prescription before popping the first white tablet because there are different schools of thought regarding whether to begin this drug subsequent to or concurrently with radiation. Some business about the theoretical possibility that cancer cells may be less active while on Tamoxifen and thus radiation somewhat less effective. But then there’s the whole get your body the protection of the Tamoxifen as soon as possible argument. I opted for “in the middle of” radiation, not wanting to carry the burden of an all or nothing decision and because it didn’t appear that anyone else was going to decide for me.

Taking that first pill was sort of weird. I kept staring at the box of tablets on my night table. I felt like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix in that moment before he considered whether to take the red or the blue pill and forever change his life. Go down the wormhole. This drug is powerful and it is excellent protection for those of us who had/have oestrogen-positive tumours, but many powerful good things come with a price, such as putting a woman through early and sometimes irreversible menopause. That may not seem like a big deal if you are already of a certain age or you are male and just don’t “get it” but to a forty-year-old who always thought she would have a third child it is not nothing. It’s unnatural and odd to think about such things before their due.

But I did it. And have been on it for a week now. I don’t think I have noticed anything (probably too early) apart from the occasional hot flash (hot flush if you are Breeteesh but to an American a hot flush might denote something else entirely, if you catch my drift) in my face, which could be totally unrelated. The chemo may have knocked me into temporary menopause in any event, so the effects of the Tamoxifen may go less noticed for me. Time will tell.

So this is how these two weeks will go: I will finish radiation, dutifully schlepping to the London Clinic for treatment every morning, and meanwhile I will begin to pack for our trip. Every day I will run my hands over my now slightly fuzzy each day slightly fuzzier scalp (it is irresistible) to monitor my salt ‘n’ pepper chia growth (see previous post). I will stare at my brow bones and lash lines in search of baby fine hairs. I will take my once daily Tamoxifen. And then that Friday will come and I will be done with radiation and about to fly across the ocean for, I think you will all agree, some well-deserved r&r. Off duty at last. Not even thinking about the further surgeries down the road some months away.

But it occurs to me that I will not really be off duty. Ever. I will relax and, not having to undergo any treatment other than that pill every morning, my stupid fucking breast cancer will fade from the forefront of my mind. But it will never really go away completely. Even after the Tamoxifen part is over. I figure every year it will get a little bit easier and occupy a little less thought depending on what else is going on in my life and in the lives of those around me. It’s just part of the deal now. I, like so many before me (and with me), some of you who are reading this right now, will have to lug it around even when it becomes almost imperceptible, virtually weightless.

I’d love to have your thoughts on this. How does it feel one year out? Two years out? Twenty years out? Do you have scars or tattoos that you see every day in the mirror and do they remind you every time? Or don’t you even “see” them anymore? Do you worry every time you have a check-up or a scan? Do you laugh at cancer jokes in movies without thinking that on some level they apply to you differently? I suppose these things are highly personality driven. I do not imagine that I will be seized by worry very often if all goes according to plan. But I know I’ll have my moments.

One of my problems is that I have never been one to let myself off the hook. So if I stop thinking about it for very long my mind will admonish, “Emily, stop focusing on how long it will take for your eyebrows to grow back or [insert other trivial beauty crap] and remember that you were diagnosed with cancer in January of 2012.” At which point I may have to tell my mind to shut the fuck up. Because once in a while I really would like to be… completely… off duty. Killing it passively.


4 thoughts on “Off Duty

  1. Hope I get to see you, but am in a show which closes with a matinee on August 12– have fantasies of leaving right from the theater (or “theatre,” as you Brits says) and heading east, stopping somewhere in PA at a place with a swimming pool–but doing two shows back to back this summer has reminded me that I am not a kid anymore (I am the resident fossil in the company by at least ten years!) so it may not happen.
    BUT – am so glad YOU get to come home!

  2. Just to say thanks for writing and cheering me up. It’s a different journey for me as you know. Diagnosed November 2011, mastectomy December, all clear and wonderful January – March, diagnosed high risk of return March, chemo started June. Now week 4 after neutropenic sepsis cleared in week 3 by massive antibiotics and lots of other stuff in hospital. Now jabbing myself with G-CSF. Such excitements.
    Of course I can’t imagine what it might be like years down the line but I do value that short time after I wake until I remember that I had cancer once (yes – I have thought like that since the all-clear) and then realise that there are far far worse things that can happen and are happening and feel very lucky and very loved.
    Have a great two weeks off – you deserve it!

  3. Emily, Force yourself not to think about cancer… after all what good does it do! Enjoy your good health. Fondly, Sharon

  4. First of all – one thing I have learned from my cancer-treatment-induced menopause is that, no matter what, it is a strange and difficult thing. I personally never had a lick of interest in having kids at all. But now that I suddenly a couple weeks away from 37 and know that without a doubt I will never be able to have a child – it stings. It stings when I take my hormone replacement pills every morning. It stings whenever I see one of my approximately 20 pregnant friends. What I learned, though, is that these thoughts are normal – even for women who reach menopause naturally. Doesn’t make it suck any less. But whatever. I’d rather be cancer-free than have a baby.
    And two – all I can tell you is what it’s like 6 months out. And from different cancer, as you know. It’s still very “there” for me. But not in a terrifying way. It’s just become part of my story. Like my two ex-husbands, my four previous states, my 20+ years in the art world, etc. It has become my timeline modifier when telling stories now: “before my diagnosis,” “during treatment,” etc. I was unafraid as I headed in for my 6 month follow-up last week. And on the vanity front, well, I didn’t lose my hair from my chemo drugs, but at this point, between treatment and major lifestyle changes, I’ve lost close to 30 pounds. And having people freak the fuck out about “how amazing I look” whenever I bump into folks now… it feels pretty incredible, I’m not gonna lie.
    xxo, Phoebe

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