“My Voice” by Ria Vanden Eynde

Ria Vanden Eynde

I’m surviving two cancers, thyroid and breast. They were diagnosed about nine months apart. The thyroid cancer was found after my physiotherapist, working on my shoulder, told me to have my thyroid checked because it felt swollen to her. For a long while, I thought it might be a benign thing, not needing intervention up to the point that the diagnosis was explained to me. After the surgery, they told me that the type of cancer I had was very treatable and I would probably be cured of it. So I was put on thyroid hormone replacement medication after my thyroidectomy and the radioactive Iodine treatment (RAI).  I remember wondering if I would still be me on this little white daily pill, seeing that it’s such an essential key hormone. The doctor explained that my body would not be able to notice that the hormone was available from another source (digestion) than the thyroid….I thought, but I’ll know…I wondered if I’d lose my colors, so to speak, if my personality would change, if my base mood (calm, dark maybe, prone to depression and serious) would be different…Actually, I felt great, my base mood was (generally) up, my character hadn’t changed per se…I felt perhaps more me than I ever was. Until that night in August, six months after RAI, I thought it was a dry raisin from breakfast sticking to my pajama top. Realizing it was a hard thing the size of a long rice grain in my breast-exactly where later one of the lesions was found-made my blood rush to my head. Some of my doctors voiced their utter surprise at finding I had breast cancer (and thereby cancer #2). They certainly hadn’t felt anything lump like at the physical exam. That had reassured me. The oncologist had sent me off not immediately seeing why a biopsy was advised-on the basis of some calcifications noticed in the mammo/echo-but scheduled one anyway after he had looked at all the images. Maximum surprise impact when at the second consultation he explained the diagnosis: breast cancer in both breasts. I had a bilateral mastectomy, lymph node dissection and reconstruction, I’m still on Tamoxifen.

So, I’m surviving two cancers. I take that literally, that is to say, they haven’t killed me. What does that mean for me, for my life?

I have a heightened respect for my body, more awareness of it and of the fragility of life. Maybe also spiritually. I see us as vulnerable sentient beings of warm flesh and blood and life as precious. I don’t understand the idea that getting cancer would be a betrayal of the body. My body works incredibly well, it reacts in tone with treatments. The zillion reactions that go on at once, why would you expect it to be faultless? My body is on my side, unconditionally- the stuff I sometimes eat… And then at (cancer) times my body can’t do it all on its own and needs help, meds, surgery, radiation…and when these don’t help anymore, I’ll die…and I think that’s okay… It’s a Buddhist idea: the body is finite and has its limitations; you have a body, hence you know suffering. But also: how else would I be able to experience compassion than through the body, how else would I be able to feel so increasingly vital?

The most difficult for me was waiting for lab results. That lifted me out of the tangible, concrete world everybody else continued going about their usual business in. The “not knowing” got filled with scenarios, doom thinking, and what ifs. Emotions were easily picked up along the way as thought processes spiraled…And there I was: trapped in a cocoon where vision is cluttered and hope is lost…Till one day I deeply knew: whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, whether I’m angry or not, whether I cry or scream or stay silent, whether I question all of this or not, whether I anticipate or whether I’m scared, whether I’m hoping or feel desperate…it has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of this…. I’ll have to take it for what it is…I’ll take it as it is… And that, I think, is (my) resilience right there, my survival-spirit, so to speak

Some people call me “courageous,” “a shero” I guess  as I saw on Oprah…I just consider myself extraordinarily lucky and feel intensely grateful…A fellow-survivor said in a magazine, “you need to have luck in all of this, luck that it’s discovered in time, luck that they can treat you, that they have meds, that you can rely on your doctor’s skills, luck that you’re surrounded well by your family and friends, that you can carry the financial cost, that you’re mentally strong enough, that people don’t abandon you…”  I feel that cancer can bring families together, that it can re-connect those who’ve been out of touch. I’ve met new friends along the (living) way, I’ve lost others. My husband is THE best! My family and my in-laws and I drifted more apart, I didn’t have much support there…To me, that’s also where survival lies, as you deal with all of that …

These two cancers won’t kill me-I hope, I want to be careful, after all, statistics…They are, to paraphrase Kris Carr, both pushing me to live. I’ve started to paint again, a long lost love along the way of living. I paint about my cancer experience too and post the pieces on a blog, as an attempt I guess to “give” something back for all the support I received, http://painting2cancers.blogspot.com/ I often do the deathbed-test. Can I live with it/myself if I don’t do such and such…won’t I regret not taking a chance? I’m more pro-active in what I want out of life, …I’m more selective with the company I keep…I often feel empowered, when hiccups are in the way, I tend to think, “hey… I’m surviving two cancers, do you really want to stand in my way, will I really let this stop me?” Or “I have/had two cancers, they don’t have me!” They won’t!