"Some women are lost in the fire. Some women are built from it."
—Michelle K.
The Fire Within Blog
Painfully Stepping Over the Line

For decades, people have described me as indefatigable, super-human strong, the ultimate survivor or the one filled with surprises and miracles. Well-intended compliments that have moved me and, during dark times, spurred me on. But now these tributes vex me because I don’t know if I can live up to them.

Maybe I’m just tired of fighting impossible.

My latest cascade of battles began in 2019, after getting a breast cancer diagnosis and not knowing whether I’d choose treatment due to Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. While pushing back on my oncologist’s recommendations, she pulled out all stops in an effort to convince me to fight for my life. She asked, “Can you imagine yourself not doing treatment and regretting it?”

I furrowed my brow, then replied, “I’m more concerned that I’ll do treatment and regret living with the damage afterward.”

I was terrified that cancer care, in all its cutting, burning and poisoning glory, would ignite a red-hot mess of CRPS, sending me back to my bedridden days, zeroing out any quality of life I’d clawed back over the decades.

I drew the line. To move forward with treatment, I had to have a life worth living at the other end.

I chose to only do chemo and miraculously lucked out, cancer and pain-wise. With my recurrence a year and a half later, it appeared I’d skated by again, until I didn’t. While the immunotherapy knocked my tumor out in short order, little did I know that with each infusion my immune system was amp’ing up to push me over the line, but in a way far worse than I could have imagined.

By mid-March, my lap swimming, my go-to for health and freedom, became a painful hell. I couldn’t push off during flip-turns, one leg barely kicked and my neck screamed in agony each time I turned for a breath. I had no choice but to quit.

Soon walking was near impossible: slow, labored and almost shuffling. My knees swelled to the point they wouldn’t allow me to get up from a chair or couch. Frantically, my partner, John, got a raised seat so I could use the toilet. I started losing weight because the pain in my jaw made eating torturous.

Screaming often through the days and nights, I felt hatchets and icepicks throughout my body, grinding glass replaced my joints. When I could sleep, I woke often with fever and chills.

After scads of labs, internet research and clinical assessments, I’ve learned that I’m the proud owner of a brand, spankin’ new disease: Reactive Inflammatory Arthritis. I’m now living the experience I feared most, the place where I told myself I couldn’t, wouldn’t go. I’ve stepped over the line, terrified it’s a one way ticket.

To dampen the inflammation and stabbing pain, hell, just to get me moving, my doctors put me on low-dose naltrexone and prednisone (the latter I swore up and down I’d never revisit.) For that blessed comfort, the cost is mighty. I’m zonked out and joyless while insomnia, constant dizziness and the constipation-diarrhea seesaw zap my QoL.

With the drug relief, I’m mercifully dipping into a warm therapy pool where I move, walk and swim some, offering vague hope of recovery. But I see the troubled look in the eyes of my Y friends, the wish that their feisty, frothy friend would reemerge. I can’t help but wonder if they’re playing witness to my slow down and out.

In my darkest hours, when the arthritic pain makes me question whether I can survive another five minutes, I rock with anger that my tumor’s gone. That was my ticket out. The jokes on me as I live the cancer-free dream. Que the laugh track. I’m not living and free is nowhere to be found.

When my better angels reappear, I remember why I fought twice, tooth and nail, to see another day. I want to live, to love and see the beauty all around me. I want to continue to be a force for good.

Ahh, but that pesky line. I’ve got to get back over it. Or do I? When I got sick 40 years ago, I swore I wouldn’t live on if I couldn’t continue my showbiz career. I was utterly convinced life wouldn’t be worth a damn without it. Yet, here I am, staring down that line again. Maybe, MAYBE there’s some wiggle room one more time.

I imagine all of us who’ve lived with high-impact pain over the long haul have drawn that line. Then later, took out an eraser and drew it again, renegotiating the terms. At another time, when we drop below, we grasp and beg as we slowly, savagely eek back over. Or not. It’s ever changing, tied to the whims of fate and will.

Maybe the line just gives us an illusion of control. Maybe it’s a frenemy, something that keeps us company whether we’re above or below.

This I know. I’m scared and tired while I stare down my new mountain. I’ve lost cherished independence, that may or may not return, requiring John to be on call at all times. We’re two generations removed since the last time I had to fudge the line, and what if my cancer returns? How many more comebacks can I stage?

Last night, I spewed anger with a close girlfriend, bristling that my impossibles never quell despite being a good person. At that moment, something awoke in me. I was surprised to feel that old spark in my belly – which has me thinking that anger is serving me well right now. It was so powerful, Heather commented, “I wouldn’t bet against you.”

I’ve learned that the best way to predict the future is by looking at the past. By that yardstick, I’ve always toed the line, come hell or high water. But like every other climb, I’ll decide what’s good enough, in my time, in my space.

Maybe I can live with that.