I’ve been in maintenance mode for close to four years. It’s a strange place to be. I get to mostly live my life and pretend I’m a real girl, working for a living, stressing about bills, getting annoyed with traffic and wondering if I should get a hot fudge sundae or not.
I mostly don’t feel like a cancer patient. I swan in and out of the clinic every three weeks, my hair and fingernails intact, and stay for a 90 minute bio-therapy infusion while I chat with my favourite nurses about travel and Netflix and the weather.
I get pulled back down to patient level occasionally when someone asks me “how long do you have to do this for?” and I don’t have an answer. Or someone I don’t know yet is taking my blood and marvels at the fact that I still work full-time. "You're amazing." Not really.
Or I get that look. You know the one. The “it’s cute you’re trying to live your life normally but I would die if I had the c-word hanging over my head” look? Fuck that look.
Or when your oncologist suggests that you’ve had a good run and you should be grateful it’s been so long since you’ve had a questionable blood test. “It’s been a few years, Carissa. It’s not totally surprising that something abnormal came back.”
For the past year, my CEA level has been increasing. CEA stands for Carcinoembryonic antigen and it’s one of the main tumour markers found in your blood. As with everything cancer-related, it’s hard to pronounce and an asshole when it comes to being reliable. When your CEA is low, you’re generally cancer-free, but not always. When it’s elevated, it can be an indication of cancer or recurrence, but not always. Below 5 is generally ok. I’m at 15 as of January. 18 months ago I was 1.7.
This doesn’t mean much yet, which is a sure sign I’m getting sucked back into the cancer system. I do know I have to go through more diagnostic tests: moving up a CT scan, getting a bone scan for the first time in eons, more blood tests. Then I get to wait for results, hug my daughters incessantly, and think about death every moment I’m not occupied. I'm used to it by now.
I’ll try to be chill. I know this drill. I know you can’t eat and breathe the stress. It'll destroy you. I’ll be a dick to the people close to me sometimes, but I'll be mostly normal. I won’t want to talk about it. Then I’ll get to scan day and feel as ethereal as a wisp of air, floating over the dots on the hospital floor. Then I’ll wait by the phone. It'll be good news and I get to pretend I’m healthy for a few more months or maybe years. Or it’ll be bad news and I’ll have to figure out what kind of treatment will work this time. And I’ll do whatever they need me to do. "I'm afraid the news is not good, Carissa." I've been there before.
I’ll get selfish. I'll start walking 5 km a day again, drink green juice every day, without fail. Cut out every glass of wine, even for toasts. I'll stop eating soy and meat and sugar and caffeine and dairy - even that little bit of goat milk I’ve reduced myself to once a day in my tea. See, most of these things have dropped down to nun-like levels already, but I’ll do more. I know how to abstain.