The first thing people ask me when they find out I had cancer is always something along the lines of “are you better, now?” Generally I answer “yup, two scans show no evidence of disease!” because that’s the easy answer, the answer people want to hear when they make polite conversation and just want to be reassured they’re not standing next to someone who has the Grim Reaper on speed dial.
But here, I can be honest. Here I can give you the real answer. The whole truth:
Am I better? That’s a loaded question. As far as the cancer cells, yes, it appears for now that they have been obliterated. Scans every few months show that there is no new cancer growth and the old is gone. But I celebrate that fact cautiously because I know it can come back at any time. I’m at highest risk for a recurrence in the first two years, but the risk is never zero and always higher than someone who has never had cancer or radiation.
Am I better physically? Well… I’m better than I was immediately post-op and immediately post-radiation for sure. I’ve gained back all the weight I lost when I was literally starving during and just after radiation. My blood levels have normalized and my body is almost back to functioning normally. . . except the lack of saliva, a fried thyroid that doesn’t work right anymore, having half of a normal tongue that has ridiculous neuropathy and taste changes that I can’t keep up with, chronic neck/jaw pain, weird nerve side effects from radiation, and permanent numbness and massive scarring on my donor arm. . .to name a few cancer-related changes.
Am I better mentally and emotionally? Hell no. I’m doing my best to stay positive but with career loss, a pandemic, astronomical daycare and medical bills on top of the cancer stuff, I’m losing ground on this front daily. Truth is, I’m more depressed now than I have been in YEARS. Decades, even. I cry almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I have been irritable and withdrawn and completely not myself. I want to sleep all day. I don’t want to do anything at all. I want to be numb because when I’m numb (or ignoring the issues) then I can’t feel the cracks forming my inevitable breakdown that I know is coming.
So, am I better? No, I’m not. I’ll never be physically the same as I was before cancer, and I still have a lot of emotional baggage to unpack and sort. I imagine that when the other major stressors let up I’ll be much more inclined to say I’m doing well, but I’ll never be better. To me, the phrase “I’m better” means I’ve completely overcome something, that it’s no longer a part of me. This disease and it’s treatment have changed me in both good and bad ways, and it will always be part of who I am.