We’ve hit some turbulence

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Life was at a comfortable cruising altitude, and we were happy to be along for the ride. But then it nosedived, and some unseen force shoved me and my mom into a small room and slammed the door behind us. We looked around and realized we were alone in the cockpit, expected to take control and make a thousand different decisions to safely land the plane.

The only problem? We’ve never had flying lessons.

It’s probably not the perfect metaphor for beginning cancer treatments, but it’s as close as I can get. The process is complex, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

After being diagnosed with colon cancer in October and recovering from a November surgery, my mom recently completed chemotherapy’s Round One – a 21-day cycle. As her co-pilot, I organized the pills, went with her to doctors’ appointments, and watched for side effects. But the first eight days were all blue skies and sunshine. We’re good at this cancer thing, we thought. We can do this.

Slowly, the fatigue crept in, followed by the mouth sores, but Mom continued to work her 40-hour-a-week job through Day 14. We were due for the first “off week” from chemo, which we naively believed was going to be a relaxing seven days of no side effects.

We could not have been more mistaken. By Day 16, she was as sick as I have ever seen another human be. She felt betrayed by her own body, and I felt helpless to make it better. It took five phone calls to nurses, four bags of IV fluids, three extra prescriptions, and over two solid weeks of severe “adverse reactions” before things improved.

Now I finally understand why chemo is described as a “round.” It’s no accident that the same word used in a boxing match is used for chemo treatment, too. She fought against extreme side effects while I endured the gut punch of watching someone I love suffer so intensely. The whole experience was visceral and raw. 

When Mom and I sit among other cancer patients at the clinic, we know that they understand what this experience is like. There are so many of us there – the patients and those of us who love them. Last week, as I watched these fellow flyers in the waiting room, I realized how ironic it is when people say that someone “can’t work” anymore because they have cancer. I’ve honestly never seen people work harder than they do when they’re getting treatment for a severe illness. I’m stunned and humbled by it.

When simply standing up and walking a few steps to the bathroom takes every ounce of strength and determination you have, you understand the true essence of work.

Having recovered from a brutal Round One of oral chemo, my mom began Round Two yesterday at a reduced dose. We’re not newbies anymore, so we’re trying to brace for the turbulence we know may come. We’re an ever-changing mixture of terrified and hopeful.

Even though I grew up in a culture that taught us to keep a stiff upper lip and “stay strong,” I’ve already failed that mantra many times. I hope it truly is “okay to not be okay” because some of these moments wreck me.

All I know how to do is crack, break, repair, recover, and move forward – over and over again – as we fly toward hope on the horizon.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at gwenrockwood5@gmail.com. Her book is available on Amazon. 

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