Earlier today, I reached the end of an era. My oncologist said he didn’t think he needed to see me anymore. Well, actually, he asked how I felt about it, then we talked about it. And then it was decided: after 14 years, I am done with oncology followup.
We had already spent the exam talking about running, skiing, diving, and other exercise. So I said thank you – a lot of thank you’s. He gave me a last stern reminder about keeping vigilant, making sure I get colonoscopies (yes, got mine last year, I’ll get another in 7). And then I was out in the afternoon sun, fighting back tears.
I went to buy new running shoes, and stood in the running shop crying. The sales guy politely gave me my space, and then I got busy trying shoes. I couldn’t think of a better thing to do after the doc news. Exercise, and particularly running, has been such an important part of my recovery and cancer experience. No, I will not say that exercise is what saved me – no way of ever knowing that, just like there’s no way of ever knowing why I got breast cancer in the first place. But it’s been so important to me, especially during some of the darkest times. Exercise kept me feeling good about my body, helped clear my head, kept me engaged with my body and my life in a positive way. There is no way to overstate how important it has been. So buying new running shoes seemed a perfect fit.
We’ve spent a lot of years together – this is the second longest relationship I’ve had with a man. Fourteen years is a long time. I know a lot of people find it surprising that I have still been seeing my oncologist. This is just one example of how we’re all different. Just because you’ve known someone who had cancer, doesn’t mean that Uncle Jack’s, or your neighbor’s cancer treatment regimen has anything to do with mine or anyone else’s. Because of the high number of positive lymph nodes and therefore my high risk of recurrence, I continued seeing my oncologist for followup. And then there were ongoing hormonal treatments. And then there was a drug trial. And followup from the trial. And now we’ve been hanging out together for 14 years.
He was, in part, the reason I kept exercising. Back in 2001, absolutely no one talked about exercise and cancer. When I asked if I was allowed to exercise, he told me yes, but I might not be able to always keep up the same intensity. He made me promise to not rock climb during chemo (risk of infection if I scraped my hands), but told me to just listen to my body – push myself when I felt I could, rest when I needed it. Aside from any medical care, that piece of advice alone was enough to change my life. and remember, this was at a time when no one cared about exercise for cancer patients. (I’ll point out here that sadly there are still too many doctors who, despite huge amounts of evidence about the benefits of regular moderate exercise, still think their patients only need their drugs and a nap on the couch.)
He was one of the reasons I became the patient I was. He always encouraged me to do my research, and make informed decisions. He made sure I understood my risks of recurrence, and the risks of any treatments. Sometimes he was kind of a drag. At my 2 year, and again at my 5 year mark – landmarks that most people consider really important – he reminded me that, while it was great I had made it that far, I still had an “uncomfortably high risk of recurrence.” See? – a bit of a drag. But that’s what I wanted – the truth. That’s what I always loved and respected – the truth. If I don’t know the truth, how can I make a good choice?
And so, here we are at 14 years, saying goodbye. It’s kind of bittersweet. It’s good. I mean, there was a time when I thought I would be with him until I died. I haven’t died, and we’re able to part. That’s good.
But it’s also weird. I’m not really sure what to make of it. On one hand, it’s just one less appointment every year, one less blood draw. It doesn’t change my risk of recurrence (which is less with the passage of healthy time, but will never disappear). It doesn’t change anything except my schedule.
On the other hand, it feels pretty significant. I cried a lot today. Buying shoes, driving home, picking lettuce in my garden….I’m happy, I’m sad, I feel the weight of 14 years of cancer, I feel the loss of too many people. And I feel grateful.
So I don’t really know what to make of it yet. I bought running shoes. I came home and did some laundry and cleaned the bathroom because life goes on. That’s the whole point of surviving, isn’t it? That life goes on. Maybe eventually I’ll figure out what this milestone means. In the mean time, I’ll do some pushups. Because I can.
Thank you, PK, for all the time you’ve given me.