Today is National Cancer Survivor’s Day. I just realized that when I saw it on Facebook. (I thought it was later this week.) Here are my thoughts:
1) I never wanted to be a “cancer survivor”. Even when I was in the early diagnosis or treatment stage, I didn’t like the terminology. I just wanted to get through the year of treatment and leave the whole experience behind. Sometime in the middle of the year I read that accomplishing this was not going to be easy.
2) About halfway through my treatment year, I came up with a term that I liked much better. I considered myself a “chemo survivor.” More recently, Mari and I have amended that to “treatment survivor.” We both wonder if the treatment wasn’t worse than the disease. The experience of having cancer still seems surreal; the experience of having chemo and radiation is a little too real.
3) And now that my treatment is mostly over and my hair is growing back to the point that people assume that I’m sporting a hairCUT rather than what I call a “chemocut”, I’m finding myself wary of the survivor part of the equation. I’m not actively worrying about recurrence or metastasis, but I am very aware of the possibilities. It’s like there is a constant background noise questioning whether I am actually a survivor or if I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think that turning 60 during the past year has amplified this whole questioning process.
Although I know that all or most of us in this age range should be living with a sense that we don’t know how much time we have left, I’m not sure that simply turning 60 would have had the same impact on my thinking that 60-plus-cancer has had. I know that I could have 2, 3, 5 or 10 years of life left or I could live for 30 more years (like my dad has since his life-threatening heart attack at age 58.) I know I could also die in a car accident tomorrow.
I’m struggling to live with the tension of all those possibilities. How should I spend my time? What priorities really matter? Should I let some disappointments and sorrows go simply because they don’t matter in the long run (if the run is going to be short after all?)
I think that all this is pretty normal post-treatment stuff. During the diagnosis and decision-making stage, you’re strong and focused on the tasks at hand. You are gathering information, finding doctors, building a support team. Getting through chemo, hair loss, radiation, and surgery requires nearly all the physical and emotional energy that you’ve got to survive. And then, you do survive (and everyone says you’re strong and brave when you feel like you just muddled through it all.) You start to look and feel normal, and everyone is happy to hear that you feel great, that you are back to work, that life can move on.
Only you find that it doesn’t.
Every ache or pain might be a sign of metastasis (or might be a normal ache or pain.) All the scars have healed well, but what is normal about an implant? Is it supposed to look (or feel) this way? Certain movements remind me that my range of motion still isn’t normal on the right arm and I still find myself surprised at the numbness of my left ear and whole right chest and underarm. Numbness is better than neuropathy, but it’s still weird.
Stumbling across a picture from last September shocks me. I thought I handled the hair loss so well. Why am I now horrified by the images of myself? Is it simply because I am able to process it now, now that I’m through all the treatment and surgeries?
And reading cancer stories (or even hearing cancer stories) is a little scary. Some are good and encouraging, but many others remind me that recurrence is a possibility. I never in my life worried about getting cancer (not much family history) and it now feels strange to “worry” or have the thought even cross my mind. I suppose that time will work this one out–unless, of course, well–we won’t go there for now.
So, I’m not sure what to think of my first Cancer Survivor’s Day. I found a comforting verse yesterday that I’ve been meditating on:
“The Eternal God is your refuge; and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27.)
Seems like a good thought for the day.