After skipping any visits to my dentist for three years, I've been giving him a lot of business in the weeks since finishing radiation.
Dental care is the kind of thing that gets neglected during cancer treatment. During times when I was undergoing chemotherapy and suffering from nausea, the last thing I wanted was to experience the sounds and smells of another medical office and to have people sticking fingers and instruments in my mouth. While I was recovering from surgery I was too weak and tired to spend my limited energy on something as easy to postpone as a checkup. And when I went through radiation, I was in too much pain to sit in the dental chair for an hour and too busy driving to the hospital every day to get zapped.
I had a couple breaks between treatments. When I finished a long course of chemotherapy in the spring of 2008 and hoped to be done with treatment forever, I started catching up on all the deferred maintenance of my body and my life. I had my hearing checked, got eyeglasses for the first time, had my car's tires rotated, began digging through piles of mail, and spent more time with friends and family. Unfortunately that break was short-lived and a few weeks later I was right back in chemotherapy trying to stop the growth of tumors that were advancing in spite of drugs that had decimated them before.
In the spring of 2009 I had the same experience. Just as I was recovering from surgeries enough to take care of domestic responsibilities and personal ambitions, a tumor stabbed me with pain and threatened my ability to walk. I had to put all of my personal care, job hunting, and travel on hold again to focus on fighting back against the cancer as quickly and strongly as possible.
It's easy to justify putting off tasks like dental care and clothes shopping when you're in survival mode. Do I really need to keep my teeth healthy for fifty years when my body is struggling to stay alive for one? Do I really want to spend my limited cash on a new suit or pair of boots when I'm not likely to have many chances to wear them? I'd probably rather spend that money on a good meal or a short trip – things that I can enjoy today.
What happens when you go through another battle, focusing on the moment, and then emerge on the other side (a bit to everyone's surprise) alive and productive again? My dentist told me when I returned after that long absence that when he first learned of my cancer he thought he might never see me again. When all of your strength and more is taken just to fight off death, you can be left unprepared for life.
It certainly takes a shifting of gears. I've heard that depression is common in cancer survivors. They get through treatment okay on adrenaline, determination, and lots of attention and support. You might expect them to have nothing to do but celebrate when treatment is over. But they can be left directionless, with a war to clean up after and time to finally realize just how much the battles have cost them. They might expect to feel normal and healthy but learn that the body doesn't heal all wounds the moment that injuries stop.
Then there's the lingering fear of recurrence. When we first put my cancer in remission, I hoped that was the end of an intense but brief battle and I was excited to face the future. When the cancer came back I was annoyed but ready to fight and hopeful that a new set of drugs would clear it out. After a couple more repeats of remission and recurrence, it's hard to get excited and optimistic for the future.
When I was in treatment I was doing something active to get better. But now I'm out of treatment and relying on my body to keep itself healthy. It's track record doesn't give me much confidence. I'm having a hard time reassuring myself that this remission will be any longer than the others.
I'm still trying to act as if it will be. To be cured seems too much to hope for, but a year or two without any recurrence would be a delightful change from the past several years. I certainly have plenty to keep me busy including deferred maintenance, relationships, travel, projects, and a career to resurrect.