Giving Thanks

Putting my house in order.

It may not seem like much to most people, but the photo on the left represents part of a symbolic personal triumph. Three-and-a-half years ago, my life was beset by cancer-interruptus. The day I was told I had breast cancer was one of the most shocking days of my life, no question. But I could never have conceived then that, in many ways, the worst part of being treated for cancer was not acute treatment, but the unending aftermath of fatigue, pain, brain fog, frustration and isolation that would characterize my life ever after. In the months and years that have followed that day, I have felt as though an invisible net was dropped over me, big enough to allow me to get from one day to the next, but drawn too tightly to let me break out of it.

Normalcy became a remembered but irrelevant concept. My life, my energy, my ability to think beyond the next hour, were enormously circumscribed. Before I could even begin to fight my way out of the net, I had to figure out what it was, with almost no help from my cancer docs. After all, I was ‘lucky.’ I had ‘early’ breast cancer, the ‘good’ kind of breast cancer. I didn’t have to have intravenous chemo. The fact that I had to endure every other kind of slashing, burning and poisoning was apparently insignificant. What was my problem anyway?

An expensive problem.

Gradually, I found out that my ‘problem’ was comprised of the sneaky, myriad, long and late-term side effects of treatment, none of which I had been warned about before treatment began. In spite of being ‘lucky,’ I developed body-slamming fatigue, axillary cording that made it sometimes impossible to raise my arm, a depressed immune system, brain fog, chronic adhesive capsulitis in my shoulder, acute asthma, endless sinus infections. I returned to work full-time after acute treatment was finished, only to have to cut my hours in half six months later. Meanwhile, I still had full-time bills to pay. Fortunately, I was allowed to be considered as partially disabled, so I could use what accumulated time-off hours I had to pad my shrinking paycheck. That meant, however, that I couldn’t take a paid vacation, during a time when I most needed a periodic break from it all. Eventually, with physical therapy, and drugs, and nutritional supplements, and cussed perseverence, I clawed my way back to working 80% of my full-time hours, and changed my pay status to permanent partial disability, so that I could accumulate vacation time again. This meant, however, that I had to pay my full-time bills with 20% less income. But at least I still had a job, and health insurance, and benefits. I still had fatigue and pain and brain fog, but I also still had a roof over my head. Like feeling ‘normal,’ feeling ‘lucky’ was a relative term.

Being single.

One of the truly wretched after-effects of cancer is the strain it can place on marriages and primary relationships. Break-ups and divorces are sadly not uncommon in the wake of cancer. I can’t imagine how stressful it is to endure such an upheaval alongside the upheaval of cancer itself. But I can tell you that being a single woman with cancer is no picnic either. I was fortunate to have good friends who could pick up some of the slack. But at the end — and even the beginning — of every day, the mortgage, the heating bill, the car payment, the laundry and grocery shopping, the housework and yard work, everything about staying alive and trying to cope with daily life still fell squarely and exclusively on my beleaguered shoulders. Even with a reduced work schedule, getting up in the morning to do my job was a constant struggle. But I had no choice. I was ever conscious that it was a blessing to have a job at all, and to have one that was deeply satisfying as well. But in my job, as well as in every other area of my life, I had to learn to live with functioning as though I were moving through wet cement, when I was able to move at all. For months and years, I’ve put up with daily indignities, constant reminders of my inadequacies. My job’s constant paperwork that was never finished, the dishes that always seemed to pile up in the sink, the unwashed laundry, the dust kitties that grew into panthers, the social plans I was too tired or too broke to keep, all of it reminded me of how far from normal my life had become. At least I had a working washer and dryer. But I didn’t have a dishwasher. It had never been an issue before, but now, when I got home from work and barely had the energy to feed myself, when my right shoulder ached, when my back insisted that I lie down, when I couldn’t think my way through another minute, I yearned for a magic wand to instantly conjure a dishwasher — if not a full-time housekeeper — in my kitchen.

A year ago, I managed to save up the money to buy one on sale. It would take me another year to scrape together the money and the wherewithal to pay a contractor to remove a cabinet and prepare a space for it, to pay the plumber and the electrician to install it. But as of a few weeks ago, I have a working dishwasher. It’s not world peace, but I’m immensely grateful to have it at all.

A work in progress.

Four years ago, I had planned to fix up a few things around the house. I had old cabinets, solid wood, but outdated. The original kitchen sink and faucets leaked, the bathroom toilet didn’t flush properly, the bathroom vanity was old, battered and so low, I had to crouch every morning to brush my teeth. I began to work out a plan that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I was pretty handy, so I thought what I could do is strip the old shellac off the cabinets and refurbish them with new shiny hardware and a simple pickling wash to give them a brighter finish. Cancer interruptus put my plans on hold. Until a few months ago. Now, finally, I have a new, taller bathroom vanity, with a beautiful ceramic sink. The plumbers installed the vanity, but I attached the sink to it myself. I have a taller, working toilet now that flushes every time. I have a new kitchen sink and faucets that don’t leak. And although it’s still a slow process, I am working my way through brightening up the kitchen cabinets. Three cabinets and four of their doors are done now. Thirteen cabinets, eighteen doors, and nine drawer fronts remain to be done. I don’t know when I’ll get them all finished, but I don’t even care now. I’ve become adept at expecting any plans I make to be stalled by contingencies like fatigue and pain. I’ve learned to be an opportunist with my own energy. If I can cope with being vertical instead of horizontal, even if only for a half hour or so, I use it to get some small task accomplished. I am grateful that I can make plans at all. The word ‘plan’ has become a sacred one, both noun and verb. I’m making progress, a phrase I now cherish.

Promises.

For the first time in several years, I will be making Thanksgiving dinner at home this Thursday. It will be a small gathering, but a special one, that will include two of my oldest and dearest friends, two women who were among the first people I called the day I was diagnosed with cancer. One of them had lost her sister to breast cancer a few years before. Telling her about my own diagnosis was one of the most poignant, awful moments in our friendship. “I’m not going to die,” I told her then, “I promise. I’m too stubborn.”

Cancer has forced me to break so many of the promises and plans I made for myself, for my friends, for life itself. But not all of them. They may not have been big plans in the global scheme of things, but they were important to me, important to my ability to feel like I was making a difference in this life, that I wasn’t just taking up space.

I remember going to the wedding of two friends several years ago. The ceremony took place in a lovely Episcopal church in Massachusetts. The minister spoke of how all of us who were in attendance played an important role in this occasion, beyond our mere presence. We were there, he told us, to help our two friends succeed, not just in marriage, but in life. Because if they could succeed in marriage, then they could succeed as citizens of the world. If their daily lives could remain strong and fulfilling, then they could extend their contribution to life beyond their home and marriage, to fulfill their promise as individuals, to help others, to do meaningful work, to attain the promise of their talents and spiritual beliefs. I was very moved by his words. He articulated what I’d believed for years, that the small tasks of daily life are not insignificant, that having a solid, restful, functioning home life is the springboard that allows each one of us to be more than we are, to dream new dreams, to achieve larger goals, to make a difference in the world by making and keeping our promises.

This year, I’m more grateful than I can say that I can finally keep a few of mine. And even make some new ones.


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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 01:11 pm, filed under Attitude, Survivorship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

13 Responses to “Giving Thanks”

  1. I can’t imagine what you are going through with this. I have my issues but nothing on the scale that you have suffered from having the cancer treatments. Hopefully one day it will not be a problem for you. Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. that is the most beautiful bathroom sink ever! I know you are enjoying it immensely. You deserve the best.

  3. Speechless. As usual.

  4. I LOVE that sink!!! Your words are timely for me and as usual so very well written.

  5. It sucks that you have to journey this BC path with the weight of everything residing solely on your shoulders. Thank goodness for the Land of Blog! This BC community is awesome.

    I’m glad you have a beautiful bathroom sink. It is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen!

  6. Thanks, everyone. Someday, when ALL the cabinets are done, you’re all invited to the party!!

    I don’t think enough can be said about the economic toll cancer takes on so many of us. And there is no easy way to get any financial help. I consider myself fortunate that at least I’ve been able to hang in there.

    And yes, the bathroom sink is duh bomb, if I do say so myself. It almost seems too gauche to wash the occasional pair of undies in it, but it doesn’t seem to mind. Best $100 I’ve spent in a long time. 🙂

  7. Kathi, reading about your home improvements made me happy. I can only imagine how you must feel every time you use your kitchen and bathroom. I’m glad you’re able to finish what you started, even if it’s a bit at a time. Yes, progress. Small steps that mean the world. Have a wonderful thanksgiving. Enjoy every minute. Love to you.

  8. This is very moving Kathi. Isn’t it strange how important ‘normal’ things become after diagnosis and treatment. Things we probably barely noticed before, or could accomplish easily before. I rejoice for you xx

  9. Kathi,
    Cancer certainly does have a way of forcing us to change plans doesn’t it? And break promises. I’m sorry you had to deal with so much all by yourself. I know I’m ‘lucky’ in that regard. I absolutely hate it when I hear “oh, at least you got the good cancer.” And then adding injury to insult, you also had to hear the “at least you only had early cancer.” Hmmm.

    I have major remodeling to do too, but life (and cancer) has put that on hold. It’s fun to look at your projects. Enjoy all your new improvements. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  10. There is never much more that I can say after reading your blogs ….. except your words have filled my heart. Mine self runneth over with love as I follow your path!

  11. Kathi,

    Your bathroom sink is gorgeous and so fitting for an artist like yourself! Yes, cancer interruptus does put life on hiatus for awhile. I’m feeling good for you in renovating parts of your home. We take our toilets for granted….until they don’t flush properly.

    I’m sure being single and going through cancer was tough. I was one of those whose marriage disintegrated right after cancer treatment was over. I might as well have been single, for my ex didn’t help me, and I went to treatments alone.

    You are so tough; I admire you. Keep on going with the cabinets. Don’t worry too much about any more interruptions. Life is one huge interruption anyway, so keep going anyway!

  12. Thank you, Stacey, Ronnie, Nancy, Susanne & Beth. Your understanding means a lot to me.

    The best thing about all this is giving myself the great gift of focussing on something besides breast cancer, of finally wresting at least part of my life from its grip!! Cancer has certainly ‘remodeled’ my life in ways I did not choose, so it’s been lovely and very meaningful to choose some that I really wanted!

    xxxxxxx

  13. Bravo on another truly excellent post, KK! And bravo for achieving a major life goal, so rudely interrupted by your diagnosis. I have a headache and ridiculous fatigue (as usual) so I’ll not write much, but wanted to at least leave a short comment, so here it is: I TOTALLY get it! You know my situation. “Lucky”(that pesky relative term again) to not have cancer, but the prevention (instead of cure, in my case) seems to be doing its level best to kill me. Slowly. So your words spoke to my heart because I am living them: the incredible fatigue, the constant pain and/or discomfort, the finance issues, the inability to do simple things we once could (took for granted even!), the direct hits on my my social life, my ability to work, my ability to think clearly, my ability to even get a good night’s sleep or a restorative nap, the depression, not to mention my new, not-so-improved body. And how managing all of this as a single person, despite having lovely and supportive friends, is the hardest thing I’ve *ever* had to do. And it’s not over. Don’t know if it ever will be.

    Thank you for your eloquence in sharing your experience which is so familiar to me (well, not the reno, but pretty much everything else!) I so admire your spirit and positive energy as well as your endless supply of compassion, Kathi. I hope you have a truly wonderful Thanksgiving in your lovely, newly-improved home. One of the things I’m thankful for this year is YOU!

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