Crossing the finish line at Ironman Canada
In August, 2001, I achieved one of the greatest accomplishments in my life. I crossed the finish line in the Canadian Ironman Championships in Penticton, BC. As I crossed the finish line, a race official put a large shiny “Finisher” medal around my neck. I remember that powerful feeling of being in total control of my destiny and having the ability to accomplish anything I put my mind too. I was so incredibly proud of myself. What bolstered the awesomeness of crossing the finish line was all of the supporters – including my friends and family – and the many strangers who were cheering us on. Then, at midnight, the finish line was taken down and most of the supporters went away. The race was over. But there were still racers on the course.
These were racers who were giving it their all but were taking longer to finish the race than the midnight deadline. I remember feeling sad for those racers who were determined to finish but would not have the reception or medal that I, or the hundreds of racers who finished in time, received. Imagine finishing an Ironman triathlon with no supporters or fanfare.
I have felt a bit like one of those “late” racers lately. When I first learned that I had breast cancer last January, the support was incredible. I had friends coming out of the wood work to offer their encouragement. People sent cards, flowers, and good luck charms; they brought over food. I felt like there is no way I won’t beat cancer with all of the support.
Today marks my 14th month of fighting breast cancer. I have three rounds of Herceptin left and then begin the five years of hormone suppression. I have previously written about how I seem to be one of the few who don’t tolerate the Herceptin very well. However, because it is such a life saving drug – massively reducing the risk of recurrence in Her2 +ve tumors like mine – I want to finish the complete course of 17 treatments.
Similar to when I was nearing the end of the Ironman race in 2001, my muscles ache, I am exhausted, I feel like I have given this battle my all. Unlike Ironman, I am still fighting. My race isn’t over yet. However, I feel like many around me expect that, for whatever reason, my life is back to normal and that I no longer have cancer because it has been a long time. There seems to be a time limit imposed on support and encouragement and that time is up for me. I don’t expect my mail box to be full of well wishes. I especially don’t want sympathy. I just wish others realized that I am still on the race course beating breast cancer.
I know many others fighting breast and other cancers experience similar cases of “supporter burnout”. The final months of chemotherapy are very lonely and as a result more difficult. And while I can rationalize why this occurs, I don’t feel any better about it. The last rounds of chemo have been much harder than the first. My body has been stripped down, flooded with cell killing toxins, and my pain receptors are on overdrive. The “fight” to win in my heart is tired. I think about giving up on beating cancer more often because living life like this isn’t worth it to me. If being cancer-free means living every day with inordinate fatigue and pain, I don’t know that I want to. I am tired of the frustration people have with me because I am not back to normal. I am tired of others thinking I have become lazy or unmotivated. I hate thinking of myself as being sick but that is what I am. I am sick. However, I am fighting like hell to get better and be healthier than ever before.
What I hope people who read this article will do is reach out to someone who is fighting cancer or another disease or hardship. Send them some token of encouragement. Let them know that you are still cheering on the sidelines. Have patience if it is your spouse or partner that is fighting. These cancer warriors still need more rest, more love, more encouragement, and more understanding, than normal. Especially more love.