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Essay: How Cancer Changed Me In Unimaginable Ways

Marie Colantoni Pechet with her husband, sons and Tigger.
Marie Colantoni Pechet with her husband, sons and Tigger.

By Marie Colantoni Pechet
Guest Blogger

Normally I don’t notice my body. I’ve always been relatively thin and people tell me that I appear to be fit even when I know that I’m not. Growing up, I wore glasses, was physically awkward, and didn’t feel particularly attractive, so I studied diligently and lived more in my head than my body. Sure, I love fun clothes, but more for how they make me feel than how I look in them. On top of all this, I live in Cambridge, Mass. where you can pair a Chanel dress with Birkenstocks and no one would look twice.

But the other day after a shower, I caught myself in the mirror. Suddenly noticing the scars from all my surgeries, the colostomy bag on my abdomen and the power port embedded in my chest, it felt like I was looking at someone familiar but not me. I was jolted into accepting that this is really me, now.

The noises from the kids getting ready for school snapped me back to starting my day, so I got dressed and moved on.

Later, I reflected on how much my life has changed since I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer four years ago. Sure, there were the physical changes, including my shorter hairstyle. Nothing says “chemo patient” like a super-short hairstyle.

After each physical change occurred, it was upsetting, and then I would get used to it. I got used to the way my once-flat abdomen now pooches. I got used to dealing with the colostomy bag. I got used to the power port. I even love the super-short hair.

The diagnosis itself shook the ground beneath me, but I was lucky enough to find a new stable spot to stand. Then the ground shook a few more times: When I learned of a recurrence, and then another. When I learned it was stage four. When I learned that I would need to integrate chemotherapy every other week into my otherwise happily full calendar. Each time, I was unsettled for awhile, then eventually got used to the change and found a new normal.

It is the intangible changes that rock my daily life and the life of my family.

Most people would say that, on my good days, I look like any other person walking around. They can’t see the change in how my mind works, but it looks like this:

I watched my husband drive a new, sporty car into our driveway. He has been thinking about getting a sportier car since we met 20 years ago, so I was thrilled for him.

The boys and I made a big fuss about the car, then we continued with our evening.

Later, I asked my husband what made him decide to get a new car today. I didn’t mind that he didn’t consult me; it is just unlike him to do anything without careful thought over an extended period of time.

“We talked about this,” he reminded me, without defensiveness or blame. “I asked if you wanted to look at cars with me, and I told you that I was trying to decide between a practical car and something sporty. Do you remember?” He showed me a few brochures. “We talked about it with our neighbors at the party last month. You told me to go for something sporty, something that made me feel good.”

I remembered none of these conversations (blame it on chemo brain). But, like a doddering old lady, I knew they all very likely happened and I genuinely appreciated that my husband explained things so patiently and kindly.

Our children are impacted by my inept mind. For example, I cannot seem to keep track of which day is library day and which day they have movement. At ages 5 and 8, they are fully responsible for knowing when to return their library books and when they need to dress for sports. Honestly, I am not much help here: It's not my picture of the totally on-top-of-everything mother I aspire to be, but it is our reality.

My energy level is unpredictable as well. One minute I am dancing; the next, I am sacked out on the sofa. One minute I tell the kids we are headed for the museum, and just before we leave the house, I abruptly cancel and tell them to play together in the backyard instead.

Like my body, this is not the life I envisioned. It falls short of the “me” that I hold in my mind.

Then, just as suddenly, I reframe it. So my kids have a crazy, unpredictable mother. They wouldn’t be the first, and they seem to take it in stride. My husband became a very involved father, and he would say a better parent than he even envisioned. I allow myself to be taken care of, in ways that I never imagined I would need, much less welcome. We lead less stressful, lower-key lives together, and we learned that we have quite a resilient relationship. I see blessings around every corner and find few things to complain about.

So my body has missing parts, added parts, and scars, but it still seems to work. My life has daily bumps and twists and turns, as well as joy and beauty. If I feel that my body, my life, or I, fall short in any way, it is because those things are not what I imagined they would be, and not necessarily because of what they actually are.

Marie Colantoni Pechet lives in Cambridge with her husband and two sons. Read her previous posts here and here and listen to her speak frankly about her life with cancer here.

This program aired on February 23, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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