If you’re a friend I haven’t seen for a while, as happens in our busy lives, you may ask how I’ve been. If you’re a casual acquaintance, I may say fine and leave it at that. If you’re a trusted friend, I may give you a very different response.
As my friend, you remember I’m the youngest of nine. My siblings and I did not grow up with much and my husband, Gerard, and I have worked really hard to build a nice life for ourselves and our two children. Life was going as planned when in January, 2017, my nephew died suddenly at 18. I didn’t know him very well, he was another cute kid with a bright smile at family celebrations. His death was senseless and made me afraid of what terrible things might happen to the people I love. I never worried about myself, but I should have.
Months passed and another tragedy struck. My brother, Yvo, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015, died at 57. He had moved out when I was young, so I didn’t know him well. When Yvo was diagnosed, my sister and best friend, Marnie, and I decided to get to know him better. We visited regularly and I learned that he was kind and generous. I will never regret the time we spent together.
It took months to feel better after Yvo died. But after a while, life got back into a routine. In early August, I took my children for an eye test, then had my own. Something was clearly wrong with my left eye and I was referred to a retina specialist, who quickly diagnosed me with uveal melanoma, a rare eye cancer.
Within days, Gerard and I were at the hospital. I was afraid. Cancer is a hard word to hear and it was difficult to share my diagnosis with my kids and family. All the doctors reassured me that uveal melanoma was easy to treat and that I would likely be okay. I tried my best to believe them.
At the end of August, my ocular oncologist sewed a gold plaque packed with radioactive seeds onto my eye, covering my tumour for seven days. This treatment is as medieval as it sounds. I was radioactive and couldn’t be within five feet of my kids or sleep beside Gerard. When the plaque was removed, my eye looked and felt terrible. I could barely see out of it. I didn’t know if my vision would ever improve, but I put on a brave face for everyone, especially my kids. Luckily, I got a lot of care and support from family, friends and neighbours. My mother-in-law was unbelievably generous, cooking most of our meals and doing our laundry.
The surgeries to apply and remove the plaque and radiation exposure made me tired, but by Halloween, I was working part-time. I was at high risk for metastasis, so I was regularly monitored by my oncologists. By January, 2018, I was working full-time. My ocular oncologist used the word magnificent to describe my progress, making me confident that cancer was in my past. Although my vision was changed, I was functioning pretty well at work and home. I went to a support group where I saw I was one of the lucky ones. I seemed to have escaped with “cancer light.” I convinced myself I was an anomaly, diagnosed young and healthy, and went on trying to put cancer behind me.
I finally felt like myself again when my mother died in April, 2018. I was embarrassed to call my manager and tell her. Who could need so many days off work for funerals, bereavements and illness? I was not close with my mother, but her death was a blow. Over the years, I had tried to build a relationship with her and failed every time. There were no more chances and that was hard to accept.
I started calling the confluence of tragedies, “my embarrassment of sorrows.” My life seemed the exact opposite of an embarrassment of riches.
One year after my cancer diagnosis, I got the all clear. We blasted this great news out to everyone but at home we barely acknowledged the good news – we wanted to put it all behind us.
Then, in December, I had pain in my left eye I couldn’t ignore. Testing showed that the tumour was growing again. This was a horrible surprise. The next day I met with a radiologist. I start treatment and I’m told the radiation I receive will eventually blind my left eye. The return of the eye cancer made me afraid that cancer was elsewhere in my body and, of course, it was. I had a biopsy on the lumps in my breasts on New Year’s Eve and went on vacation, hopeful. When we returned, I found out that the cancer was metastases.
Since January of this year, my metastatic cancer has continued to spread and I am in treatment. I am off work and living my life with cancer, hopeful that one day it will be a chronic illness that is under control. Recently, there have been some indications that my treatment is working. This is the first positive news I’ve had since December, 2018, and I’m cautiously optimistic.
I’ve learned a lot from my recent experiences. I am not ticking adventures off a bucket list, but I am choosing to live a more informed life by being grateful for each day, spending more time with people I love and worrying less about a future I may not be here to enjoy. Most importantly, I am keeping everything light and breezy for my kids. They seem unembarrassed by my embarrassment of sorrows, maybe because they live in the moment. I try to do the same, live in the moment, not listing my tragedies to anyone, including myself.
The list seems too long for one person to bear, but I do bear it, moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to live with humour, hope and far less sorrow.KYRA WOUDSTRACONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAILPUBLISHED NOVEMBER 1, 2019
Kyra Woudstra lives in Toronto.
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