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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

The Arts as Therapy: "Rebuilding My Life"

More from Delilah O'Haynes

"Rebuilding My Life"
From the upcoming book, Walk Free From Fear of Cancer, by Delilah O'Haynes:

I'd come through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I would have to take drugs, but the worst was over. This should have been a time of celebration, but it was actually a scary, bewildering time.

For a year, I'd had to rearrange my entire life for cancer. Therapy dominated every waking thought; and I'd been at the hospital or doctor's office every week. Suddenly it was finished.

Now what?

I could not go back to life as usual. I had to rebuild my life, from the bottom up.

Family and friends of cancer patients might mistakenly think that it's over at this point and that loved ones should be all right now, but now is the time that these patients need the most support. Many cancer patients tell me that during treatments, they don't worry about the future, about the possibility that the cancer might come back. It's after treatments that some feel most vulnerable. One acquaintance of mine said it took her two years before she finally had one day that she didn't worry about cancer recurring. Also, during treatments, you're so busy getting treated that you don't have time for a life. Then suddenly, you're expected to have a life again, even though life will never be the same.

All of my family and friends were cheering me on to get to the end of my cancer treatments. When I finished radiation therapy, I got balloons. But I felt lost. I was glad that I would still have tests and doctor visits because I had become accustomed to having nurses take care of me. I felt that as long as I was being tested and checked, everything would be all right. One of my cancer "buddies" told me she didn't go into depression until her treatments were over. When I finished, I felt a little bit like an adolescent leaving home; it was just as scary as it was exciting.

Cancer survivor Judith Hooper writes, "Oddly, many of us feel safe as long as we're getting hooked up to the IVs full of Kool-Aid-colored chemicals, but the day our treatment ends and our hair starts to grow back, we feel as if we're being tossed to the sharks."

Physical recovery from cancer treatments is very slow. Other illnesses can occur as a result of the treatments or a compromised immune system. I got shingles and then mastitis (breast infection) after radiation, followed by extreme tenderness, followed by an even worse bout of shingles. I'm told that shingles, caused by a lingering Chicken Pox virus, is a recurring problem for cancer patients, especially those who have taken radiation. For breast cancer patients, it often manifests around the rib area underneath the breast and is extremely painful. I actually had more muscle pain and soreness after radiation than I'd had after surgery. Pharmaceuticals didn't relieve my shingles or prevent them from recurring, so I continued to use herbs and supplements, such as oil of oregano, olive leaf extract, shark liver oil, garlic, noni, l-lysine, Ester C, Echinacea, Elderberry and vitamin B complex to bolster my immune system.

It takes years for the body to recuperate. Some of the people in my "buddies" group who took treatments many years ago say they have never regained their strength or vitality. One woman said, "I feel old." Dr. Gabe says that cancer treatments, even radiation alone, are "a major assault" on the body, one from which you might never fully recover.

Just when I thought I'd completely recouped, I got "acid-trip" flashbacks, with nightmares, sleeplessness, jitters, and waves of "lostness." My memory is still compromised. Recently, we were covering the play, Oedipus the King, in a literature class, and I wrote "Oepidus" on the board. I also have times when I again feel as though my brain is scrambled; when I am physically over tired or sick, my thoughts become jumbled. Trinka Porrata, drug expert, says that anytime your brain has been damaged by drugs that alter brain chemistry, "You're not going to find 'normal' or a balance again."

I celebrated the small signs of restoration, like the day I was finally able to lift as much weight at the gym as I had before surgery, or the evening I heard the first spring frogs and, for the first time in eight months, felt good to be alive. Accomplishments that marked my restored independence were especially sweet, such as the first night I drove alone without feeling scared, the first weekend I was able to stay home alone, and the day I prepared my taxes and realized I could still take care of myself. I made a ceremony out of washing my wigs and packing them away, and burning my "handicapped" parking permit, to thank God for my freedom.

Tangible evidence of that freedom came exactly one year after my surgery, when on August 12, 2003, I had my portacath removed. I was no longer physically tied to the cancer industry. Now, thanks to great nutrition and estriol, I feel like myself again most of the time, when I don't overtax myself.

I did not celebrate that day, but rather celebrated several months later when I could once again wear a normal bra. This occasion called for a "coming out" party, which consisted of trying all different types of bras to find the prettiest, most comfortable bra available. Suddenly, I was obsessed with bras and gloried in the fact that I was once again a size 38C. I'm not the only breast cancer patient who has celebrated in this fashion, for one of my breast cancer buddies says that, more than a decade after her reconstruction surgery, she still can't resist a pretty bra.

Sample O'Haynes' poetry.