In Between & Beyond

Frantic moments captured on screen,
April reads memories
to me.
Looking back, shadow-covered sheen:
that year breeds vortices
I see. 

The truth lies beyond the shadows,
graying echoes lead home
to show:
branches bow the way the wind blows,
bend underneath life’s tome,
and grow.

This week’s Wea’ve Written Weekly prompt at the Skeptic’s Kaddish is from Destiny, who asks us to do the following:

  • Write a poem using the memento poetic form

A ‘memento’ is a poem about a holiday or an anniversary, consisting of two stanzas. Each of the two stanzas is:

  • Six lines, Syllabic: 8-6-2-8-6-2, Rhyming: a/b/c/a/b/c.

This week is my anniversary of finishing cancer treatment. In mid-April 2021, I completed the final infusions that would hopefully secure my position in remission for as long as possible. Two years later, I’m happy to say that I’m still waving happily from the remission sidelines of the cancer field.

Remission is a hell of a trip, though. The first year after treatment can best be described as a gut punch. You’re waking up from the “survival” mode that got you through cancer and realizing that you’ve literally and figuratively been through the wringer. Chemo killed all my bad cells– and all my good cells. Surgery changed my self-image abruptly without my say in the matter, and radiation burned whatever was left of my physical strength and dignity. “Chemo lite”, AKA Herceptin and Perjeta, was physically tolerable but dragged out treatment’s all-encompassing exhaustion for another five months past radiation.

Ringing the “end of treatment” bell at my local infusion center in April 2021.

That’s not to say that I regret any of it. A newcomer to our online HER2+ (a breast cancer subtype) support group recently asked, “Do any of you regret receiving chemo?” She was new to the Cancer Club, so about 100 of us could only sigh and shake our heads as we all unanimously responded, “Not at all. I’m alive, aren’t I?”

Chemo saved my life. That’s not debatable. I had a 9+ cm tumor, a second palpable tumor, and cancer already migrating through my lymph nodes. If left to its own devices, I probably had a few more months until it reached my vital organs. Without chemo, it’s all downhill from there, and at a rapid pace. Chemo eviscerated my cancer. Despite its damaging side effects, I’m grateful. It was a necessary evil. I also consider myself fortunate. Not everybody is so lucky to have a successful response to chemo.

Early remission is a complex bundle of emotions. There’s a sort of twisted regret about having had cancer in the first place even though it was completely out of our control. There’s some jealousy of the “healthy” folks out there (read: anyone without a serious illness), especially the ones who seem to live off McDonald’s and cigarettes (“How the hell do they not have cancer?” we survivors ask, as we diligently eat our full servings of vegetables and avoid even third-hand smoke (is that a thing?)).

There’s some bitterness. There’s also a great sadness as we fully realize everything we’ve been through. I had a hard time thinking back to the fact that I spent three long weeks with a newborn at home contemplating his life without me before I was able to receive the scans to tell me how far my cancer had spread. During those three weeks, I was in limbo: would I receive the soul-wrenching “3-5 years” prognosis or the “hey, there’s a potential to cure this thing and live happily for another decade or maybe much longer” prognosis? And then the world essentially shut down in March 2020 when I was mid-way through chemo, leaving me completely alone in a little infusion room when I most needed contact with others. I still shudder thinking of the abandoned radiation waiting room in 2020.

My kiddos and me on Easter Sunday 2023.

But I’m here. I made it. Sometime around the one year past treatment mark, a lot of the negative emotions (the regret, the guilt, the bitterness, the sadness) dried up and left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a need to make it easier for the next young person who gets a cancer diagnosis. I joined groups that made a positive impact on me, I started a new job that I love, and I began looking for ways to advocate for others with cancer, especially AYA patients (those aged between 18-40 at diagnosis).

Recently, I worked with people at Mayo Clinic to share some of my experiences in a series of videos about the financial impacts of cancer; these videos are meant to help those newly diagnosed navigate the complex financial piece of cancer life. I signed up to be a mentor with the Firefly Sisterhood, and I shared parts of my cancer journey with Elephants & Tea and Wildfire Magazine. I’ve recently signed up to mentor with Imerman Angels as well. Next month, I’m giving a local talk in my town about using writing as a way to heal through trauma and difficulty. I’m really, strangely (?) happy. I think the reason it seems strange is because I’m still not sure how to feel after cancer, or if I’m supposed to be happy. But I’m about 95.2% sure it’s all about your perspective.

The song “Survive” by Rise Against says it well. I saw them in concert twice during my punk rock phase in high school/college (a phase that is apparently still live and well, considering the CDs– yes, CDs; don’t judge!– tumbling around on the passenger seat of my car; maybe I’m just a weird little punk at heart), but I still find them pretty awesome 15+ years later. These lyrics stand out to me especially:

"We've all been sorry, we've all been hurt, 
but how we survive is what makes us who we are." 

Take a listen if you’re also a bit of a punk rocker at heart. In the words of my eight-year-old, “Punk rock is kinda creepy but also friendly.” I think he’s wise beyond his years:

The beginning is a bit explicit, but also spot on for how life feels in remission:

"Somewhere between happy and total fucking wreck,
feet sometimes on solid ground, sometimes at the edge."

I’m on solid ground now. But if you’ve been through hell and you’re still at the “total f#$king wreck” stage, I think that’s completely okay. It gets better. It really, really does, and people are out there trying to make it more so. We hear you. Peace, readers. 🙂

22 thoughts on “In Between & Beyond

  1. The first year after treatment can best be described as a gut punch.

    Wow. I read this and so appreciate you’ve shared all of these details and emotions with us, Sarah. Thank you…

    Much love,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful poem. My father, stepfather, and grandmother all died from cancer. My stepfather went through chemo twice and had years of remission. He was a strong man. Glad you are here to tell your story.🤗❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That is truly something to celebrate. I’ve watched two people close to me die who were not so lucky. Your poem captures the feeling of between that will probably always be there. I admire your ability to expose your vulnerabilities to others in order to help them through the fire. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The memento is wonderful – the rhymes surprised me! Excellent! But this post causes the poetry to fade to insignificance when compared to your cancer journey. Thanks for sharing your experiences. ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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