What Recovery Means to Me: Part 1
In January of 2018 I was diagnosed with Leukaemia during a routine physical to prepare for a month abroad.
I was 33 years old and had spent the better part of my life working in the music industry as a writer and artist and had spent the last five years in a female country trio called Runaway Angel. We’d just released our second record and returned from our first tour in Europe a few months before and were finally gaining some real traction.
As I sat in the doctor’s office, I almost thought I was hallucinating when she said the words the first time, “You have cancer.”
When I was first diagnosed, an onslaught of appointments, pills and major changes came my way. While my initial prognosis was positive, I entered an immediate fight or flight world, where I no longer felt in control of my body or what was happening to me.
Whenever I had a major obstacle to over come in my life or career, I always tried to visualize the steps I would take to get there, and how it would look when I got there; but my cancer diagnosis left me puzzled. The treatment was a daily pill I would need to take every day, possibly forever. I would never technically be ‘cancer free,’ taking the pills, and I would always face the risk that the drugs would lose their efficacy over time, or that my cancer would progress to a later stage. Suddenly fear became a palpable and ever-present partner.
I listened to my doctors, I did what I was told, and I hoped for the best. But the best didn’t happen for me, and I quickly had to learn to accept both the unknown and the unwanted. After months of trying, my body couldn’t handle the drug, and I developed drug toxicity that led to side effects more life threatening than my cancer. I needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Suddenly my positive prognosis became these sobering statistics:
- 50% chance of survival with a transplant,
- 0% chance of survival without.
If my transplant was a success, I would potentially be cancer-free again.
I was going through hell, and I had to keep on going.
I had my transplant, spent a month in the hospital, and then moved to a rented condo across the street for the first 100 days. I went into early menopause, lost all my hair and my skin turned black and sloughed off in sheets from the chemo. My transplant was deemed a success, and I was officially ‘cancer free,’ but I was not free of the fight. Soon, there were complications. Lots of them.
For the next two and a half years it felt like the goal post moved on a weekly basis. Just when I would begin to wrap my head around something, another awful thing would happen. I kept telling myself ‘You just have to get through this,’ but this changed constantly.
The list of complications in my clinic notes reads like a malady or errors; a movie- filled with impossible plot twists and unexpected surprises. I spent what felt like never-ending months, in and out of the hospital and I came close to death so many times the fear I felt about it began to slip away. I was often at a loss for words when people would ask me how my recovery was going.
The truth about recovery is that It’s not a final destination, or any destination at all. It is a whole journey. For the last two years I thought I was in recovery, but I was just continuing to experience trauma beyond my control, while doing my best to stay sane and alive. When you’re in constant fight or flight; there is no time to relax, no time to make mistakes. You just do as your told by the people you trust, and you hang on tight for the ride. You prepare as best you can and distract yourself from the pain or the fear because you have no other choice.
But, when it all starts to come to an end and your ‘new normal’ begins to emerge from the wreckage of your old life, it can be a huge adjustment. Suddenly you get to make choices again, and it feels hard and scary to do that. You’re finally able to slow down, take a breath and take inventory of what took place around you, and you start to really recognize the horrible things that happened. You start feeling all the other feelings that your body skipped over so it could feel the abject fear and terror you felt when you were in fight or flight. When all that heightened fear begins to fade, that is when the real work begins.
For me, the real work of recovery was finally facing it. Accepting it. I had to accept radically what had happened to me. The trauma, the terror, the anger and the grief. The massive changes in my body, my mobility, my future. The loss of my fertility, my career and so much more. I was grieving. I was devastated I had been keeping everything inside for two years just trying to stay alive, and now that I had, suddenly feelings poured out of me like water.
For me, recovery was about picking up the pieces. I tried to face the regrets I had when I was near death and use them to redirect my future priorities. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my life and identifying changes I wanted to make to be a better person moving forward. It was grieving all my losses. Accepting all the changes. It was reclaiming little joys and re-discovering my purpose, in whatever way I could, whenever I was ready or felt up for it. It was hard, heavy work carrying big, intense feelings, but the work was rewarding and I am so grateful for every moment I am here now.
Cancer, and everything I went through afterwards truly changed my perspective in a way that could have never happened on its own, and in the hindsight of the aftermath, I can clearly see why this experience was the ‘gift of a shift’ that will change me and my path, forever. To get here though, I had to go through the hardest, scariest, worst moments of my life. I had to fight a battle I would have never chosen but am eternally grateful to have won. I am stronger, braver, and bolder because of these mountains I have faced, and the view from the top is even better than I could have imagined. That is what recovery is to me.
Written By Cadence Grace
If you want to learn more about her journey, you can follow her blog at www.loveandLeukemia.ca.