Three years ago today, I walked out of my final radiation appointment. I was DONE with cancer treatment.
What I have never mentioned before is that I walked out of the cancer center and was greeted with smoky skies.
You see, just about two weeks prior to one of the happiest days of my life, our region was catapulted into one of the most devastating events in our history.
Our beloved Columbia River Gorge was on fire.
A teenager senselessly threw a lit firework into a ravine, igniting what would grow to be a 50,000-acre fire in one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest.
About two years later, I was driving through the still-charred-but-recovering Gorge and I had a sudden realization: The forest and I have been recovering together since that smoky September.
As I thought of that fact, I was surprised by the number of parallels that could be drawn between my experience of fighting cancer and this wildfire.
The first parallel came when thinking about the support that is provided at times of community and personal tragedy.
What I found with fighting cancer is that there is a definite difference in the levels of support and concern that you receive from people, with that support naturally tapering off over time. The same is definitely true with wildfire.
The first people who fade away while fighting cancer (and wildfires) are the distant acquaintances. When people around the country heard about the Eagle Creek Fire, they would think “Oh man, that’s too bad. I’ve visited Multnomah Falls before and it’s a beautiful place.” They might have even checked social media for the first few days to see how much damage the fire would cause. They knew about the Gorge and they knew how devastating a fire would be in that beautiful region of hiking trails and waterfalls. Then, as the containment increased and threat to lives and property decreased, their concern naturally waned.
This was similar to the distant acquaintances in my life. If a friend-of-a-friend heard that I had breast cancer, they probably said “Oh, man, that’s too bad. I remember her from __________. I hope she’s okay.” Then, they might have looked me up on social media to see if they could find some more news. Some might have even been concerned enough to send me a Facebook friend request. But, once the word got around that I wasn’t dying, their attention was understandably diverted elsewhere.
The second group of people who fade away are the out-of-town friends. In regards to the forest fire, these were the people who knew and loved the Gorge and were devastated to hear the news. In the first few days or weeks of the fire, they frequently contacted their local friends and family that remained in the area. Due to their knowledge of the area, they realized the catastrophic nature of the fire. However, once the fire shifted away from the most popular landmarks and moved toward wide open spaces, their concern waned as well.
My out-of-town friends were awesome during the beginning of my cancer journey. The cards, phone calls, and well-wishes were very much appreciated. Things naturally quieted down once the “landmarks” of cancer treatment were over (mastectomy, first chemo, hair loss, etc.).
The third group of people to fade away after a long period of support were the local friends. Where the Eagle Creek fire was concerned, this included people from all of the neighboring towns. They were welcomed with smoky skies for months, which gave them a daily reminder of those on the front lines of the fire. Many locals checked containment status as part of their morning routines. But once the smoke finally cleared and containment increased, their stress over the situation decreased as well.
My local friends knew many more details about our family’s particular situation and realized how difficult my cancer treatment was. They would see me in the store and give me a gentle hug, knowing that it must be a good day if I’m out and about. They would see me at church, which would remind them to reach out with a phone call or card during the week. Their support was genuine and frequent. But…once my scarf-covered head became the norm and I switched over to the “easier” chemo and radiation, even my local friends needed to move on. There were others in our midst who needed extra support by then.
RESIDENTS AND FRONT-LINE WORKERS
The fourth group of people are actually those whose concern and support never waned. Because it couldn’t. I’m talking about the frontline workers and residents directly impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire.
Their lives were put on hold for the duration of the fire, either by being evacuated from their homes or by tirelessly working to extinguish the flames. They saw first-hand the devastation created in the region and they knew exactly what was going on in terms of containment. They had to stick it through to the end.
This was the case for those I lived with during my cancer treatment, as well as the amazing healthcare workers who greeted me with smiles and support through my final day of treatment.
If you remember, I found out I had cancer just SIX DAYS before we moved from our home, so we put the rest of our plans on hold and lived with my parents for the duration of my cancer treatment. With front row seats to my journey, they saw my struggle to get up and moving. They saw me burst into tears at the dinner table because I was SO tired of not being able to eat. And they were all there to celebrate with me on my final day of treatment because they saw firsthand what I had endured.
I’m not bringing this up to guilt people about their level of support during my cancer journey or that of anyone else. I’m really not. I’m just pointing out the natural level of support offered based on proximity and level of acquaintance, and how that support naturally wanes as the cancer treatment does its job.
The REAL reason I brought all of this up was to set the stage for my three-year survivorship update.
As the Columbia River Gorge and I have continued to recover together, I thought it would be interesting to share what people might notice about our recoveries as they fit into these same four categories of acquaintance.
For most people that see me walking down the street, there is absolutely no way to tell that I have had cancer. The same holds true for people who are driving through the Gorge as part of their journey (not necessarily their destination).
Unless they are told (or reminded) of our tragedies, there is little to remind them of our past.
Just as some people might notice the thinner appearance of the charred trees along the summit of the Cascades, they might notice the extra heft around my middle. However, unless someone reminds them of what happened, they might not connect the dots that my increased weight has something to do with my cancer journey. Instead, they might think “Wow, Stephanie has really let herself go.”
When former residents drive through the Columbia River Gorge, they likely won’t notice much evidence of the Eagle Creek Fire. However, they might see a small patch of still-charred trees along the freeway they have driven many times over the years. This will remind them of the tragedy and they will start to notice other, more subtle, signs of fire damage.
While signs of my recovery from cancer are subtle, they are still there. If an out-of-town friend comes to visit, they probably won’t be reminded of my cancer journey at first glance. As we talk, they might notice the faded port scar on my collar bone. That scar might then trigger memories of my cancer treatment and bald head, which will lead to compliments on my long hair that now reaches halfway down my back.
Locals who drive through the Gorge on a regular basis have definitely had a front row seat to its recovery. In the months following the fire, they waited for their favorite hiking trails to open up and took notice when the melted road signs were finally repaired.
Now, three years later, the changed landscape is the “new normal,” but there are occasions when the locals are more keenly aware of and saddened by the landscape that is forever changed. Even though they are greeted by charred trees on the hiking trails, they can still appreciate all that the Gorge has to offer and are grateful that there is still plenty of “green” to enjoy.
Those who were in close proximity to me during my cancer recovery followed along with the important “final touches” of treatment, such as my breast and nipple reconstruction. To date, they have probably witnessed some of my menopausal mood swings in action, or my ongoing-yet-fluctuating grief at not having any more children. However, my close friends and family all recognize how lucky I am to still be alive and we still act accordingly even three years later.
RESIDENTS AND FRONT-LINE WORKERS
There are VERY few people who fit into this category and they are the ones who know that my cancer recovery, unfortunately, is still an ongoing journey.
They see how frustrated I get with myself when I can’t outrun a mood swing with positive thoughts.
They see the tears when I get on the scale and see that my significantly-reduced calorie intake and extra exercise have done next to nothing for my menopausal weight gain.
They listen to my list of pros and cons for tattooing my reconstructed nipples, now that the grafts are no longer new and pink.
They understand the concern in my eyes when I talk about the weird crap my body is doing (out-of-the-norm migraines, aches, and pains) and probably feel the same unspoken worry that my body could be housing another tumor. (We all know that it’s highly unlikely, but the concern is always there.)
They push me to keep appointments with my oncologist, when I really don’t want to rehash all of my current symptoms and feel like a hypochondriac.
They see the whole messy picture and continue to support me without hesitation.
Considering the massive amount of people who visit the Columbia River Gorge, there is only a small percentage who have REALLY hiked far enough into the Cascades to see the true devastation and recovery from the Eagle Creek Fire. But even though they see the singed trees on each side of the trail, they are able to see the beauty of the changed landscape. They are grateful that there is still a trail to enjoy.
Three years after cancer, my life would not be considered ideal for most people. It’s definitely not what I had in mind for myself. I’m overweight, I’m struggling with migraines again, and some days I’m an emotional mess thanks to menopausal mood swings. But for those close friends and relatives who are audience to my situation, they will almost always hear any of my complaints followed by the simple statement: “But I’m still here.”
Three years later and I’m still here.
My post-cancer life is its own kind of beautiful. It’s mine. And I’m beyond grateful.