Before all these cancer shenanigans started, I would sometimes wonder how I would do in “the fire.”  You know, like, what kind of stuff am I really made of?  Could I give an ass kicking to whatever it was that threatened me and mine?  Or would I just crumble at the weight of it?  (Am I the only one who has thought about what it would be like to have cancer?  Or to be paralyzed?  To lose a child?)

An unrelated but super cute old pic of Penny "fighting fire."
An unrelated but super cute old pic of Penny “fighting fire.”

To be honest, I’ve lived a pretty cushy life.  I’m not saying that I haven’t had my fair share of adversity and heartbreak, but it’s pretty first world problem kind of stuff.  Middle class white girl stuff.  I’ve never broken a bone, have always had a roof over my head, and if I was ever in any real trouble, which — besides the cancer — I really haven’t been, there’s an army of friends and family who I could rely on for help.

Like these guys.
Like these guys.

I have to say that being in the fire was nothing like I imagined.  I now almost flinch at the constant comparisons of cancer patients to “fighters” or “warriors” or “survivors.”  To me, it implies that we have some sort of control over the outcome if we can just rise up enough, and it implies that those who ultimately die of the cancer somehow “lost” or weren’t good enough.

The way I see it is that the only “battle” that I really fought was with myself…and I’m still fighting that battle, fyi.  Because cancer is the biggest mind eff there ever was.  (Well, I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, and I can absolutely think of worse things, but for me, right now, yes, the biggest mind eff.)  There was nothing I could do about the cancer except to go along with my doctors’ treatment plans.  No amount of positivity would will the cancer away, and for that matter, no amount of kale juice or turmeric or cannabis oil would either.  It was, in fact, my doctors who were fighting that “battle.”  I was merely the battleground.

I heard a lot of “Heather, you are so brave!  I don’t know if I could do it…”

What?  Arrive at your doctor’s appointments on time?  Because if I had ANY choice in the matter, I’d run the other way screaming.  If it was the same either way, I’d choose to never have a day of chemo in my life.  And surgery?  Wouldn’t. Have. Happened.

I actually really appreciated those kinds of kindhearted words.  Don’t mind my internal quips because I really do know people were just trying to build me up…and maybe doing that whole “How would I handle this situation?” thing with themselves.  It actually did give me strength (Thank you!), but I was never really sure how to respond because I didn’t feel particularly brave.  I felt trapped.  I felt forced to do awful, awful things that I didn’t want to do.

Looking back (because five months out from chemo is such a long time), I think I was missing the point.  I think I was being a little hard on myself and possibly you guys.  Just like the cancer “fight” is largely a mental battle, I think being brave is also a mind game.

Sure, I absolutely, unequivocally did not want to have a double mastectomy, but I did it.  And that morning, my only goal of not freaking out was accomplished.  Instead of focusing on what I was losing, I managed to keep my mind on what that surgery was giving me — my life.  I convinced myself that this surgery was pretty much the best thing to ever happen to me (besides my husband, my children, Mmmbop, the Frito Burrito, jeggings, this blog, and my eyelashes growing back).

Thinking back on that, I realize that I am super brave, so take that, fire!  Not only did I send my beautiful breasts to the bad boobie graveyard (RIP, righty.  Screw you, left boob.), but I did it with a smile on my face and a gratefulness in my heart.  I may or may not have — but, for sure, definitely did have — some pretty rough chemo days that I wouldn’t call “brave.”  In fact, I did crumble.

But now I know what that feels like, you know?  The gifts cancer gives are pretty few and far between — it’s categorically an asshole — but if cancer ever did give me a gift, it was the gift  of knowing who I am.  I learned more about myself in this last year than I have in a lifetime.  It was like I woke up and saw myself.  I learned who I love (There are exactly six friends who really, REALLY matter to me.), what I believe in, and even what I like to do.  I learned that I am not so patient, Josh and I really do make a good team, and bald is not my look.  I learned what the fire felt like.  I learned that, even if I crumble sometimes, I am brave.

Still, I don’t want anymore fire in my life for a while or for, like, ever.  So friends, good gifts ideas for my birthday or Easter or next Tuesday are smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, emergency exit signs, etc.  Just kidding.  I’ll take shoes.  (Size 6.)  Besides, you’re probably still trying to figure out if you made the cut anyway.

4 comments on “Hi, can you tell me where the emergency exit is?”

  1. Loved this post. I can relate to all these feelings. And will my eyelashes really grow back? Sigh. Tired of being bald and can’t wear eye makeup because I have the dry eye so bad. I’m envious of you being 5 months out! Keep writing, I enjoy your posts! 🙂

    • Your eyelashes really WILL grow back, and you will never take them for granted again. As I put mascara on now, I lavish every stroke. Soon enough (although in the heat of it, it takes forever), you will be five months out too. Hang in there — or some other worthless cliche.

      And thanks!

  2. Heather, most of us feel the same way about using the “military terms” in cWorld. This has been a big issue recently among stage 4 patients. (Funny, I just finished writing about this subject myself: “I was diagnosed with life” – would love your opinion on it) I don’t like to be called a survivor, or a winner, or a warrior, or even brave. Not in relationship to cancer. I, like everyone else, am a survivor of life.

    It isn’t fair to those who die from cancer to be called “losers” which is what the statement “lost the battle” implies. I don’t want those words spoken at my funeral if c will be the cause of my death.

    I’ve been told the same things you’ve been told, “I don’t know how I would do if…” but I tell them, “easy, once you choose life, anything is possible!”

    I hope you are doing well post-treatments.

    Rebecca

  3. yes, totally opposed to using winning or losing battle terms in connection with cancer. I will personally come back and haunt anyone who says that about me. Think zombie. Think apocalypse. Think, “uh oh we pissed her off!” I know people mean well, that’s me being nice, but once enlightened, cut it out, just stop! Hopefully, blogs like this and many others that keep making it real, will educate the masses.

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