I got into a discussion recently with a group of women who all started chemo the same month I did, when one of them said she was now a one-year survivor. She counted from the date of her diagnosis. Which seems to me a bit like counting a child's life from the date of a positive pregnancy test. That day may be emotionally meaningful, but it's irrelevant in terms of the actual birth. A year ago today, I found out I had cancer. But the tumor was already there, and it continued to be there in the month of testing and appointments leading up to my surgery. I wasn't a "survivor" at that point, I was a cancer patient. And all week I've felt edgy and sad as this day approached, reliving the painful biopsy, the terrible phone call, the decisions about treatment, and telling my children. So I'm marking this day not as a point of survivorship but in remembrance of the day my life was forever altered.
Because I won't ever look at life the same way. It changed me. Not just the obvious things of forfeiting my breasts and allowing myself to be repeatedly poisoned. Not just going bald or having my formerly straight hair turn into fluffy curls. Not just agreeing to take endocrine therapy for at least the next decade and accepting all the side effects that go with that. It's that from the day I heard "invasive cancer," the long life I expected was no longer a reasonable certainty. Invasive breast cancers do not, at this time, have a cure. You can reduce your risk of it returning, but you can't ever be sure it's not quietly brewing in your bones or liver or brain. And given the aggressive cell biology of my particular cancer, I can't say that I like my odds.
When I received this gardening catalogue last month, I started to pitch it into the recycling bin but stopped short when I saw the date. Seemed like a reminder that on the anniversary of my diagnosis, I can still invest in the future. And so I sent my order in this morning, and will be planting bulbs in my yard come fall.
Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and died shortly afterward, wrote in his book When Breath Becomes Air:
“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
I don't think I'd have fully gotten that before, but I sure do now. The possibility of an earlier death than I used to imagine has heightened my awareness of life. One year into this, I'm grateful to be here.
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