My appendix tumor had perforated and scattered cancer cells into my abdomen, and because I had other metastatic tumors found in my abdomen at the time of my second surgery, there was a very high probability my cancer would return after treatment. It was especially likely it would return as I had a very high grade tumor that statistically had poor outcomes in other patients. Signet ring is a fast growing and very invasive type of cancer that can be resistant to chemotherapy. Even with advanced treatment for my cancer, my long term outlook was very uncertain. Many with appendix cancer suffer recurrences.
I learned that in the cancer world, the toughest time isn’t when we are going through the surgery and chemo, but the long time afterwards when we have to watch and wait after we have put down our cancer-fighting tools. Finishing chemo was difficult, chemo had been my security blanket. I was in treatment for almost a year. In hindsight, the year of treatment was the easy part. The living in limbo between cancer tests, the feeling vulnerable, the knowledge that my world could potentially fall out from under me with every test made the first few years after treatment very difficult.
I felt better after three years, but I still felt vulnerable even after that. I’d learn of people who’d succumbed to recurrences at 4 and 5 years. I think after cancer we all feel some degree of vulnerability for a long time, maybe forever.
After I finished treatrment, I didn’t want to go right back into clinical nursing. I’d been in hospitals and doctors offices so much, I wanted a break from the medical environment. I worked for a bit in an assisted living facility (around lots of people who had made it to “old”) and taught at a local college. I put all of my paychecks towards my medical bills. I started doing a lot of volunteer work. I delivered meals to the homebound elderly, I ran a soup kitchen, I started a service group at my church, I did free musical entertainment at nursing homes, I mowed elderly neighbors lawns and raked their leaves, I participated in our communities Christmas in September rehabbing houses for the poor. I’d done some of that before cancer, but now I did a lot more.
Volunteering did a lot of good things for me. It kept me busy and kept my mind off of cancer. It was good for me in that it entailed no real commitments; I had trouble making commitments after cancer as my future was so uncertain. Volunteer work also made me feel good as I was helping others in need, meeting great people and getting my mind off of myself. I had a great need to give back; I had been given so much by so many people through my own tough time. I had a great need to make my life purposeful, I think I needed to feel worthy of my survival, to be deserving of it.
I had actually been struggling with purpose before my cancer diagnosis. I was thinking of a career change maybe, a new direction. The whole mid-life time for reflection and reassessment, the need to make sure my life counted, that I was fulfilling my purpose in life, doing what I was meant to do. I think maybe all of us get to that point. About that time The Purpose Driven Life, Pathways to Purpose and lots of similar books were bestsellers in bookstores. Maybe us baby boomers were all hitting middle age and wanting to make sure our lives counted, that we were doing something meaningful with our lives.
Surviving cancer made me obsessed with a need to find purpose in my life, though. I’d seen so many lose the battle. I’d been told I was not going to survive and I had, at least for awhile. I went through a phase where everything I did had to have meaning and be important, I didn’t want to waste any of the time I had been given.
But I wouldn’t volunteer in the cancer community. Even when I was asked to talk to someone newly diagnosed with cancer I couldn’t do it.