I’m writing this blog post at 2:26am, flush with a 102.5 degree fever, wide awake after getting back from the bathroom where I just puked my guts out. I’m sorry for that not-so-pleasant image to kick off this post, but this, unfortunately, is sometimes what stage four cancer looks like.
For every time that I hear someone say to me, “You look so great!” or “You look so healthy!”, what people don’t see is these in-between moments where I feel anything but great and certainly not healthy- the unexplained fevers and vomiting, the constant dull ache in my shoulder from the sizable tumors in my lung occupying space where there should be nothing, the fear and anxiety as I embark on a clinical trial for my cancer that has now failed both frontline therapies for metastatic melanoma and continues to grow in multiple places throughout my body, the bruises on my arms from the half dozen blood draws I have had in just the past week alone.
I continue to work at my job as a nurse and hang out with friends and keep my life as ‘normal’ as possible because that is the way I’ve chosen to go about living with this cancer. Early on after my diagnosis, I made a very conscious decision to do my best not to let cancer hold me back from doing what I have worked hard to be able to do and what I love to do. What people often don’t see, though, is everything that lies under the surface when it comes to cancer. And that’s okay; I don’t expect them to, really. That’s part of the reason I chose to write a blog post on this topic.
The dichotomy between my outward appearance as a person with cancer and everything that is going on inside of me, both physically and mentally, as a person with cancer can be difficult to explain to others. I just want to be treated like Grace, not Grace with cancer. I do not want people to pity me or look at me with their head tilted sideways with sad eyes or assume that I can’t do something because I have cancer. And so I often put on a brave face and choose to smile and nod my head when someone exclaims that I look “great!”. But I also feel compelled to be honest about the fact that cancer is so much more than what people see on the surface. It is juggling medical appointments in another city, it is working a physically-demanding job that some days leaves me completely drained and in pain, it is managing the steady stream of medical bills and insurance claims, it is the knowledge that I have lived with this cancer for over a year now and the sobering reality that the treatment I am currently receiving has about a 20% response rate, it is being scared for what the future will bring. This is stage four cancer, and some days, it’s really hard.
Despite the ups and downs and twists and turns, I have gotten up every morning to keep going, even on the really hard days (and there have been some really hard days). I do it for a lot of reasons- for my incredible friends and the people I love most in this world, for the most supportive family who have been my side through it all, for a job that allows me to care for and be present on one of the most important days of a person’s life as they welcome their new tiny human into the world. It can be hard to hold everything in a balance, and some days I just plain don’t. It has taken some time for me to come to the realization that that is okay. As impossible as it seems, I can simultaneously struggle with this cancer while also feeling overwhelming gratitude for my life. I think that is a weird and wonderful thing about being human.
As the holiday season is in full swing, it feels appropriate to end with a few lines sung by Bing Crosby in White Christmas (my and my sister’s all-time favorite holiday movie) that have been running through my mind a lot these past few days:
If you’re worried,
And you can’t sleep,
Just count your blessings instead of sheep,
And you’ll fall asleep,
Counting your blessings.
I’m a big believer in counting my blessings, and dang, I’ve got a lot.