”It doesn’t happen all at once, you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” — Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
The Velveteen Rabbit is one of my all-time favorite books. I don’t recall reading it as a child, but I do love it as an adult. I was sorting through one of the never-ending piles of kid junk upstairs and found my copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. I sat down in the midst of my junk pile to re-read it. It had been too long; I certainly haven’t read it since breast cancer so rudely interrupted my otherwise-fabulous life.
The passage above jumped out at me, and stuck with me after I finished reading the story and got back to my junk pile. As I tossed worn-down erasers and fuzzless tennis balls into the trash and stacked some outgrown books for donation, I realized why that passage was stuck in my brain: it speaks to an issue near & dear to every cancer patient’s heart — the idea of being “done” and being able to get back to our “real” lives.
This is a recurring theme in the life of a cancer patient, whether stoic and methodical or impatient and impetuous. We want our real lives back. You know, the lives we lead before receiving the phone call from the doctor’s office that changed the course of our lives. In my case, it was a life of a million ordinary things — carpool, homework, packing lunches, making dinner, scrubbing infield dirt out of white baseball pants, playing tennis, and raising my kids. Those million ordinary things added up to make a full and contented life.
The life I lead now is quite different. So much so that I’m not even sure what my real life is anymore. I do know that in my pre-cancer life, anxiety didn’t plague me like it does now. I slept easily and soundly without visions of recurrence dancing through my head. I woke up each day ready to attack my to-do list and carve out a little time for me as well.
In my “real” life, my calendar wasn’t chock-full of doctor’s appointments, and now my life seems to revolve around them. Appointments for follow-ups after surgery, appointments to check blood work and feel for enlarged lymph nodes, appointments to monitor the prescription drugs that are a part of my everyday routine, appointments to stem the ever-present threat of lymphedema from the lymph nodes that were sacrificed during my mastectomy, appointments to plan the next surgery necessitated by a hungry cancer beast with far-reaching tentacles.
My “real” life wasn’t bifurcated into B.C. (before cancer) and A.C. (after cancer). Instead of marking time by the milestones of my kids’ lives, I now keep track based on which stage of the cancer “journey” I was in when said event occurred. To wit: Payton’s 11th birthday was 10 days before my bilateral mastectomy and the same day as my PET scan, to determine just how long this cancer beast’s tentacles were. The first Taylor Swift concert Macy & I attended was 2 weeks after the mastectomy. The post-mastectomy infection struck 5 days after my 41st birthday. Payton’s baseball team’s first trip to the State Championships coincided with the second hospitalization because of the infection. The weekend before Payton started middle school I was in the hospital again because of that damned infection. I had a bone scan the same day our new refrigerator was delivered. Payton’s first baseball game of the spring season was the night after my reconstruction surgery. School started 2 days before my first revision surgery. My second revision was 4 days before Halloween.
I’m trying to get back to my “real” life but am learning that some things will never be the same. Like The Velveteen Rabbit, becoming real again means my hair is different from the hormone-manipulation hell required for pre-menopausal cancerchicks. My eyes haven’t dropped out just yet, but my vision has changed (again from the hormones) enough that my Lasik surgery 7 years ago might as well never have happened. I’m for sure loose in the joints from the daily dose of Tamoxifen, and am getting used to the recurring bone pain as well. I am most definitely very shabby overall, with more grey hair and new wrinkles from the stress of life with cancer. Some days it’s hard to decide which has been battered more — my body or my soul.
And like The Velveteen Rabbit’s experience, it doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time. A long time. I’m not very patient, and much of this “journey” has been a true test of my limited stores of patience. They say it’s a virtue, but one that I don’t have. I’m still waiting to just become. Those 2 little words, “You become,” represent what I’m working toward in getting back to my “real” life. It definitely doesn’t happen to people who break easily. Cancer is a mean and vicious enemy. Many times on this “journey” I’ve heard myself saying out loud, How much more do I have to take? And the answer has always been, I don’t know how much, but more. Always more. If I were one who was easily broken, I’m not sure how this story would have played out. Most likely, I’d be in a 12-step program for Oxycontin addiction. Or I’d be a repeat visitor to the Betty Ford Clinic. What I do know is that there’s always more. And that it’s a daily battle to get back to “real.”