a cartoonish man with a cowboy hat and wobbly legs is struggling to climb the stairs.

Cancer and the "L" Word - Limitations

When you get cancer, your whole life changes. I know, I know, you are saying, “Duh!” and “Of course!” and even, “You might be ruggedly handsome, but I guess not that smart!” Well, handsomeness aside, it’s true – cancer does change your life forever, but it does one specific thing that becomes difficult to accept for many of us – it imposes limitations.

Ugh, the “L” word – limitations. It’s an ugly concept – being unable to do things you once were. We often hear about the triathletes, Peloton spin-cycle maniacs and epic free-climbers who are struck down with The Big C and then are no longer able to pursue those athletic feats of insanity, but for most of us, limitations hit in much smaller, more intimate, and more surprising ways. After all, no one can be terribly surprised that after cancer they are no longer able to dead-lift 500lbs while balancing on one foot, but you never think cancer will prevent you from walking upstairs again and those 13 steps become a constant reminder of how your life will never be the same.

The real picture of cancer limitations

When I went into the hospital to begin my cancer journey, I was heavier. Now, a small portion of that wasn’t muscle. OK, a fair amount. Bah, most of it. Ok, ok, you got me – it was mainly made up of MexiMelts, chicken fingers, and French fries, but the point is I was close to 155lbs on the night I was admitted to the ED. You can read in my other posts about the three-month-long hospital journey of misdiagnoses, incompetence, and doctor fights that it took to finally get diagnosed and treated for lymphoma, but at the end of that pleasure cruise I walked out of the hospital at a stark 113lbs.

Yes! Shockingly, three months of being allowed to “eat” only chicken broth and water while sneaking Hershey’s Kisses for sustenance at 2 am resulted in me losing almost 45lbs! Who knew? (Everyone.) When I got home though, I was determined to make it to my room without any help and I started up those stairs with the highest of hopes. One step – “Oh, boy, that’s tougher than I remember.” Two steps – “Holy cow, jeez, I am winded.” Third step – “Ugh, umm, OMG, I don’t think I can do this...” I’m sure you can guess the rest. I had to be helped up the remaining ten steps and every single one was a dagger straight to my heart that told me “Hey, your life as you knew it is over.” That’s the real picture of cancer limitations.

Forced to confront the reality of my new normal

Of course, as time went on, things got better and I was eventually able to take those steps almost the way I used to, but it took a year of work, forcing myself to eat, and exercising my leg muscles. Despite all of that, though, I will never be able to float up and down the stairs gracefully like I used to (some would say like a ballet dancer wearing rocket shoes). I still get winded now and then and I doubt that will ever change and just like that the limitations cancer has put on my life are thrust into the forefront of my brain and I am forced to confront the reality of what I can’t do any longer.

It’s one heck of a mind-fu... well, you know. As I said above, I knew cancer was going to prevent me from doing many of the big things I had taken for granted, but I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for mentally, was the stupid, ridiculous, daily minutiae that had to be altered or eliminated entirely because of cancer – a bench in the shower, having most of my favorite foods taste disgusting suddenly, having to take anti-nausea meds seemingly forever because my stomach never really recovered – these are the tiny blips that added up to a sea change that drove home just how much that “L” word was a part of my post-cancer life.

Accepting my limitations

Now, look, I am supposed to tell you that you will be fine and you’ll find a new normal and then I’ll sing a chorus of “We shall overcome,” while holding hands and leading the audience in some gentle swaying. So, yeah, picture me doing that but also telling you that “new normal” is just a dolled-up euphemism for “having to accept your new limitations.” It isn’t all bad news, though. Why? Well, because everyone has limitations, healthy or not, and all cancer really does is shift around some of the limitations you previously had to new vectors like one of those slidey-around square picture puzzles. (I’m sure they have a real name but I have no idea what it is so “slidey-around square picture puzzles” will do.)

Before cancer, you weren’t able to be a professional NBA player because, well, you sucked. Now, after cancer, you don’t have the energy to play at all. OK, so different limitations but same results – you ain’t gonna be the next LeBron. Before cancer, you could type but you had horrible spelling and grammar. Now, after cancer, you can’t type anymore because of neuropathy so you use a voice-to-text program and it spells and grammar-cises for you. Grammatizes? Grammars. Yup, nailed it. Point is, different limitations but pretty much the same result – the computer is going to do the readin’ and writin’ for you. Yee-haw.

You see what I’m getting at? Yes, limitations are going to seem like they abound after cancer, but after a while, with time and some work, you’ll realize that most of your “new” limitations are just shifted versions of old ones and life will eventually revert to a version of something you can deal with on a daily basis. Then, the only “L” word you’ll worry about is Larry, your next-door neighbor who keeps leaving his shades up after showers. Really, Larry? Talk soon.

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