Finding My Way Back to Me

When you’re in the thick of cancer treatment, the trick to getting through it is to go on autopilot. Thinking is the enemy. I don’t want to brag, but I did an excellent job of that. I kept as busy as my body would allow– hosting fundraisers, doing volunteer work, being a mom. As treatment waned, I doubled down on busyness – installing a ridiculously large vegetable garden and orchard at my second home, working out or running daily, being a mom. Nose to the grindstone mentality has kept me out of trouble.

But it also kept me out of life. Long after the chemo, radiation and surgeries were through, I continued to feel like deep thought was off limits. I’d try to read, but couldn’t concentrate. Writing was, and is, a joke: I stare at a blank page for a few minutes and then find an excuse to get up and do some kind of manual labor.

Not being able to write really freaks me out. The reality though is that I really don’t want to do it, fearing that writing down the words will lead to thoughts I don’t want to have, thoughts that may just swallow me up.

I’m a cancer survivor. I don’t say it often, because I worry that it’s bad luck to say. Being superstitious is silly, I know, but when something really, really bad happens to you, all you want to do is avoid having it happen again.

My ability to articulate feelings has been greatly impacted by the experience of having cancer. I’ve been too afraid to feel fear, too angry to express what was making me mad. That ability is coming back slowly, and painfully. I have many gripes rising to the surface.

I missed out on the tail-end of my son’s babyhood. I look at his sharp angles and tousled hair and my heart breaks, just a little, over the loss of his chubby wrists and rounded face. When did that happen? I was too sick to notice.

I long for the sense of peace ignorance provided me. I’m mad at the good-intentioned but misguided advice that I believed wholeheartedly: that I was going to have a bad year and then it would be over. It’s made me impatient with myself for not feeling that way once the year was through.

I’m frustrated by the way my brain feels foggy now, thanks to chemo and menopause and that if I don’t write things down, thoughts slip from my memory like silvery fish in a stream.

I miss my damn estrogen, and the way it made me feel strong and young. Life without it is all hot flashes and aching joints.

I hate the way my body feels no longer my own. I had no idea that losing a few lymph nodes would be so impairing; I thought fake boobs would feel pretty much like real ones (they don’t).

I’m afraid of recurrence, and I rail against the reality that I’ll never be free of that fear.

I feel foolish and ungrateful. I tell myself that the hard part is over and I should snap out of it. But often I feel hot tears of remorse for things lost inching their way towards my throat. It’s all so very unfair, and though I’ve been around long enough to know that this is just the way the cookie crumbles, I am still angry, still sad, still afraid.

My doctors (and I still see a lot of them on a regular basis) remind me that not much time has passed at all. “Two years,” they say, “At two years, people start to feel like themselves again.” It will be one year in November that I finished the last round of treatment (other than the monthly shots I’ll receive for the next five years and the pills I’ll continue to take for ten), so maybe I’m halfway there. I can do this, I know, but I’m saying it out loud: this is pretty hard. Physically easier than last year, but mentally, much, much harder.

So to my friends who wonder why I’m checked out, this is why. It’s not you, it’s cancer. Still wreaking havoc. This time last year I’d rallied friends and family to raise over $15,000 for the Komen foundation – this year a big goose egg, because I haven’t had the energy or the brain power to get organized. If the doctors are right, then I’ll redeem myself next time around. Until then, I hope people can forgive me.

Know this: just because a cancer survivor’s hair grows back, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily done healing. There is a whole new level of recovery that’s just beginning.

Well, heck. I did it. I wrote this all down and I didn’t turn to dust. Maybe I’m getting closer than I think.


8 thoughts on “Finding My Way Back to Me

  1. Phyllis Mongno

    Dear Jen: I wish we could take your fear away! After our little girl passed away I was afraid to let our son Larry out of my sight. Over the years some bad things did happen to him and each time I died a little inside but some how he survived my fear. His childhood was changed because of my fears. I was changed because of my fears. It lead me down paths I never thought I could go down. It made me a much more compassionate person. It made me see that many people suffer illness and loss. It helped me turn my fears into acceptance and understanding. It made me a much better nurse. You need time to grieve for the things that you have lost so that you can then accept and go on with your life. We all love you, hang in there, you are in my thoughts!

    1. Jennifer Coughlin Post author

      Oh, thank you for sharing your story, Aunt Phyllis! You understand all too well. I love you, too!

  2. Melissa Zaidinski

    This was so beautifully written and a glimpse inside your mind and heart…I wish for you to allow yourself to grieve and come to peace with ALL you have endured. Some scars aren’t seen on the outside, and you’re right! You’re incredibly strong and brave and I will ALWAYS look up to you. So much LOVE and prayers for your continued health. Xoxo

  3. Janet fuino

    I love you Jen!❤️ You have always been able to speak best with your pen. I am glad your voice is coming back. ❤️❤️❤️


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