Although it’s hard to explain, in my pre-cancer life I saw myself as a “high-functioning” person. I suppose you could think of it this way: I had stamina and could process information fairly quickly; I could read and write and problem-solve; I never had an issue remembering important things like names and dates. I was a high achiever with high expectations for myself. I’m fairly certain that others saw me the same way, and it is possible they still do. Actually, it’s highly probable. The thing is, I question whether this is who I am now.
A few years ago, around the time the #merckmiracle kicked in and I was anxious to get back to what I considered to be reality (work life, social life, family life), my palliative care doctor, Dr. Vicki Jackson, and I had a conversation about how the world would be different upon my re-entry. We talked about my high expectations, the ways I can be hard on myself, and the need to see my “functioning” in a new way. I couldn’t beat myself up because the things I used to be able to easily accomplish, like reading a book, no longer came easy to me. Most importantly, she explained that my stamina probably would never recover to what it had been B.C. You can actually hear portions of this conversation, as it aired on WBUR in 2017.
I pushed myself over the past few years to prove her wrong – to increase my stamina and sharpen my brain. In many ways, I accomplished that. I do the things I need to do as if cancer was never part of my life. I have to say, I think I do a pretty good job of looking like I have my shit together. I go to work at a demanding job, I spend time with my amazing family and friends, and I continue to be curious about the world around me. I try not to let the emotional baggage get in my way. I work hard to present myself as “normal.”
I’ll tell you something, though, that I generally keep to myself … pretending to be “high-functioning” is exhausting. I spent the past few years holding myself up in front of someone else’s mirror, comparing my abilities to the abilities of others. I hold myself to unreasonably high expectations. I try to keep my anxieties to myself – as if I talk about cancer holding me back from what I think is supposed to be my best, I am using it as an excuse. At the end of the day, the effects of cancer on my life are not an excuse, they are my reality.
The truth is that Dr. Jackson was on to something which took me over three years to figure out – I am a new kind of “high-functioning.” I don’t operate like I once did – I read and write slower, my ability to think on my feet is a little duller, and it may take me a bit longer to process information. And, while I have taken time to grieve the loss of these attributes, I have also been able to embrace new ways of “functioning.” I have a better sense of myself. I am focused more on the process as opposed to achievement. I am more empathetic. Most importantly, I am tougher and more resilient than I ever was when I thought I was so-called “high-functioning.”