As someone four-and-a-half years removed from a breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve reached the point in my recovery where I “what if” myself all the time. I’ve moved past the consistent routine of doctors appointments and testing that were de rigueur during treatment and the clinical trial I took part in. That leaves me with a lot of spare time, and plenty of room in my brain case to ponder what I did or didn’t do during my treatment.
For example, I keep going back to the four week period between chemotherapy and radiation where I seriously considered not doing radiation. At that point, I’d had a PET scan and 16 chemo treatments that, as far as I was concerned, killed enough evil in my body and psyche. I didn’t see the point in roasting myself, as I referred to it, on top of all that. The logic wasn’t there. But, I went ahead and did it. The problem I had was, what if I don’t do it and the cancer comes back? So, I went ahead and submitted myself to 34 trips to the giant rotisserie.
Then, after my oncologist and I determined that I was really and truly post-menopausal, I decided to switch from Tamoxifen, the gold-standard of estrogen-inhibiting drugs, to an aromatase inhibitor, which is meant to kill any remaining estrogen your pituitary gland might have the audacity to secrete. I spent eight months of misery on that drug, and boy was I sorry. I went back to Tamoxifen and promised to re-visit the situation once I’ve been on it a full five years.
In December, 2017, I discovered that I had atrial flutter, which is an irregular heartbeat. I was subjected to a battery of tests and had to take a beta blocker and blood thinner for a couple of months. Then, I scheduled myself for a procedure called a cardiac ablation, where a doctor specializing in cardiac electrophysiology, went up through my leg with electrodes to zap the area of my heart that was not beating regularly. A year later, my heart is fine, but I still cannot feel parts of my right leg.
Just before Thanksgiving, I came down with a cold and cough so epic, I thought I would never recover. Pre-cancer, I never had any issues with my lungs, save for one episode of bronchitis when I was in my 30s. Now, any cold I get settles immediately in my left lung, making me cough and wheeze like a three-pack-a-day smoker. I’ve never before felt a rattling sensation in my lung, and it is not pleasant. And for the record, I halfheartedly smoked Parliament cigarettes for about five minutes in high school.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about over-treatment of breast cancer. The consensus now seems to suggest that women are receiving too much chemo and too many sessions on the rotisserie. Given that my diagnosis included a spread to my lymph nodes, I was told that the treatment I received would be very aggressive. What I wasn’t told was how bad the fallout would be years after treatment ended. I don’t think there is any doctor who would tell you that residual side effects from cancer treatment don’t change you physically and psychologically, but I do think there is a pact among medical professionals to downplay the aftermath. For example, the cardiologist who performed the ablation procedure, along with the general cardiologist I saw prior, were both reluctant to admit that my heart problems might have been caused by radiation treatment. In my case, it’s easier to say, you’re an overweight, middle-aged woman, what do you expect? Of course you’re going to have heart problems at some point. Not that it matters now; the damage is done and I have to deal with the consequences of my decisions.
It’s human nature to question yourself when you get to a certain point in life. So many questions start with the phrase, “What if…” that you want to delete it from your vocabulary. I have my share of regrets, but the most difficult ones to reconcile are the ones that have to do with the decisions I’ve made about my health. It sucks to feel like shit for as long as I have, and to have trained professionals de-emphasize what you’ve been through. I’ve been gone since the dawn of the “Me Too” movement, and many people think this is a problem experienced only by women. I’m not so sure. Maybe if the medical establishment treated its patients with more empathy, I wouldn’t feel this way.
What if we could be kinder to each other and not look at each other like parts on an assembly line? What if we stopped and listened instead of trying to wrap things up quickly in order to move on to the next task? What if…