Six months out and one year in.

It was a little over a year ago that I discovered a lump in my armpit. They’d been really itchy — my armpits, that is. I wasn’t itchy anywhere else, so I thought I had developed a sensitivity to my deodorant. I switched brands, then quit wearing deodorant altogether for a while, but the itching continued.

At some point in late February (last year), I discovered the swollen lymph node, probably when I was giving in to an urge to scratch. I decided to wait and see, telling myself that if it didn’t go away in a month, I would get it checked out. I let two or three weeks pass and then decided to call, thinking that it would be another week or two until they could actually see me. I didn’t have a primary care doctor, so I randomly called one in my network that was at a convenient location for me. I was shocked when they offered me an appointment the same day, which I couldn’t make, so I scheduled one for the following day — March 10. A slew of tests over the following month and a half led to my Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis and the whirlwind of a year that ensued.

Even as I started to learn more about lymphoma, and that itchiness is one of the symptoms, I didn’t put two and two together until very recently. This winter, I keep catching myself looking back on last winter at this time. How did I feel? What was I doing? I find it mind-boggling that I had cancer for who knows how long and I was doing big rides and ski days and had no idea that something was wrong. But just like the itchiness, as I look back, I realize that there are other things that were off. I had been in a bit of a physical funk for a while. I was doing long rides but not necessarily feeling great — yet not bad enough to think anything of it. I often go through periods of feeling more tired and then they pass and I feel more energetic again. That wasn’t super unusual. I had a lot on my plate at work and I was pretty stressed out about it, so I thought that was contributing to my lack of energy. Looking back, it seems logical to assume that the cancer was a cause as well. Or maybe not, who knows.

Not that it matters. What happened, happened, and I made it through. None of the long-term side effects that I was worried about came to fruition (that I’ve noticed, anyway). It has been a little over six months since my last chemo and I think I am back to 100% physically, though I waffle back and forth on that. Sometimes I feel like I’m in even better shape than I was before chemo, like on the day a few weeks ago that I chased a 2.5-hour pretty difficult mountain bike ride with a 7.5-mile trail run that started by climbing over 1,000 feet straight up a mountain. The run wasn’t supposed to be that long. I’ve been working on consistency and building up running mileage since fall, after not running at all during chemo and plenty of stops and starts over the past four years as I nursed a lingering hamstring injury. In a strange twist of events, it seems my hamstring has been doing much better since chemo — my guess is due o the prolonged rest of not running at all for four months — and that has me excited to do some longer runs again.

I’ve been consistently doing 3-5 mile runs and my intention was not to suddenly almost double that single-run mileage, but a decision to avoid an icy trail followed by a wrong turn stretched the planned four mile run into over seven. As my watch tallied mile after mile, I couldn’t believe how good I felt. Despite running farther than I have since probably early 2019, my legs still felt strong with minimal niggles. My hamstring was fine.

I returned home full of exuberance, dreaming of possibilities. The next day, I was sore and tired, but I still rode my bike to work. I remained sore and tired that entire week to follow, and my exuberance turned around. I felt worried and upset that it was taking me as long as it was to recover. I was supposed to be 100% now, right?

That nagging anxiety pipes up in the background. Does not feeling good for every workout mean I have cancer again? Is something else wrong with me? Are there lingering effects from the chemo that are just popping up now?

Never mind that I didn’t take a rest day until later that week, or that doing a run that long after several weeks of hitting higher weekly running mileages than I have in years would naturally put a strain on my body that it would need to adapt to. Chemo or no chemo, feeling tired after all that was probably normal, and I logically know that nobody feels super great for every workout all the time. But that nagging fear is still there. I had a clean PET scan in early December, which gave me some reassurance, but now the uncertainty has reappeared, whispering in my ear anytime I feel anything less than amazing.

In the fall, starting about six weeks to two months after my last treatment, I experienced a drastic increase in fitness as my body recovered. The energy I felt was also probably bolstered by the mental effects of being so happy to be feeling good again, grateful that treatment worked, and the stark contrast between “chemo legs” (the dead feeling that became constant in the latter half of the summer) and my increasing strength. But as fall turned into winter and the post-treatment months passed by, the high began to fade. I wanted, and unrealistically expected, to maintain that exponential upward physical and mental trajectory.

Much like any gain in fitness meant so much after months of chemo drugs knocking me down, it was easy to be ecstatic about everything and there was a point this past fall that I felt like I’d been cured of the depression that has plagued me my entire adult life. But as fall turned to winter, my mental state began to return to an equilibrium as well — a constant state of ebb and flow and many days when happiness takes work and isn’t the default. Not because I don’t love my life, but it’s just the way I’m wired.

I’ve begun to realize that maybe part of the shift away from gratitude and enthusiasm has been the result of me diminishing what I made it through this past year. At some point, I stopped identifying as a cancer survivor, feeling like that moniker is meant for people who have come closer to death and been through a greater ordeal than I have. Chemo sucked but it wasn’t that bad. A longtime friend of mine passed away from cancer (a totally different kind) over the summer, while I was in the middle of chemo, after months of suffering and complication after complication. Meanwhile, I was still riding my bike a hundred or more miles a week.

I have guilt about my feelings. How dare I feel anything resembling depression when everything worked out so well in the end, so much better than I could have expected a year ago? Just as life circumstances aren’t the cause of my depression, they aren’t the cure either, and neither is cancer and four months of chemo. But that experience did give me another tool in the toolbox, a perspective shift that is transformative if I allow it to be.

It’s easy to diminish an experience when it works out alright in the end. It’s easy to forget how scared I was, especially in the beginning, that I was never again going to be able to do things that I’m doing now, just six months out of chemo. The past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting frustrated for not being better, faster, stronger — not just physically, but in all aspects of my life. I’ve been putting a ton of pressure on myself to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do right now, to the point where I’ve been getting incredibly stressed out about it instead of using it as incentive to make the most out of each day. I’ve been tying myself into knots worrying that I won’t get around to doing everything I want to do instead of just enjoying whatever I’m doing at the moment.

I’ve recently realized that using my experience over the past year for positive change requires a continued acknowledgement of and reflection on it, not to dwell on the past or be fearful of the future, but rather to leverage it to be a better version of myself. It requires regularly revisiting the worst moments of last spring and summer and remembering my fears, not to languish in negativity but to be thankful for my health today and to remind myself that I am indeed a badass, I can do hard things, it’s not worth it to sweat the small stuff, and life’s too short to waste time on things that aren’t fulfilling, enjoyable, and worthwhile.

4 Replies to “Six months out and one year in.”

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