Yesterday I had a delightful lunch with three of my very favorite friends and co-workers. This was the second year we'd all gone to lunch together at this particular restaurant, the first being last year on the first anniversary of my surgery for breast cancer. I wanted to thank them for helping me get through a trying time and for being my cheering section and support group. I was going to buy them lunch to say "thank you" and they ended up buying mine.
Today marks the second year since my surgery. It hasn't been far from my mind for most of the day, not in a depressing or self-pitying way, but nonetheless there. I wondered, will cancer every be far from my mind? I've had basal cell carcinoma on my nose and breast cancer so that's two forms of it right there. Is there any truth to the saying that bad things come in threes?
I went to see a new primary care practitioner this week and her assistant asked a bunch of questions including one that just about floored me. "You're two years in remission?" I didn't know what to answer. Nobody had ever used that word "remission" and, frankly, my mind doesn't work with "remission" very well. "Remission" usually brings to mind the cancellation of a debt or forgiveness for sin. It's also used to mean that during the course of an illness an improvement is noted, whether or not it is permanent remains to be seen. It's that "during the course of an illness" that gives me pause. There are an awful lot of people with cancer who have lengthy remissions but, quite often, those remissions go out the window, sometimes after the course of treatment is complete and sometimes days before that five-year mark that is used to change "remission" to "cured."
A friend and I were talking about it today. I told her that, frankly, I was very hesitant to claim the word "survivor" yet. Yes, I've made it through two years, but I still have that little nagging thing in the back of my mind that says, "Where are you hiding and when are you going to be exposed?" Survivor is a powerful word; to survive means to have made it through a dangerous time, a severe trial or even a lengthy process that takes courage, strength, and, yes, probably more than a little faith. I live with cancer, whether or not I actually have any malignant cells in my body at all. That's what I call "cancer brain."
This afternoon I read Facebook and ran headlong into an article called "Am I a Cancer Survivor?" that I couldn't pass by. Ashley Makar is an editor on the blog Killing the Buddha and also is fighting metastatic cancer. She made a statement at the beginning of the article that grabbed me. "I didn’t want to wear the label that tends to be on the winning side of the battle we make of cancer in this country. For me, battle is not a good metaphor for a fatal disease that lives and multiplies and recurs in the bodies of so many." *
Oh, sweet Jesus, I know that feeling. I know it so well and it was precisely what I was trying to describe to my friend today when we were talking about it. Granted, I don't have a diagnosis of Stage IV or anything even close to it (right now, anyway), but I'm still afraid of jinxing myself by claiming survivorship too soon. So I celebrate the anniversary of my surgery and think that I have survived two years which, tomorrow, will be two years and one day. That's the best I can do. I think it's enough, at least for me.
I thank Ashley Makar for expressing so well something that was just a nebulous thought in my head. And I thank her for giving me something I can think about with some positivity -- each day I live I'm one day further along in my survivorship.
I also thank my friends, those with whom I had lunch yesterday and the others without whom I wouldn't have gotten through the past two years. They've given me space when I needed it and they've been right there when I've needed that too. They don't give me pity; they are just friends with whom I can have sometimes difficult conversations about where I am mentally and physically, and who allow me to feel I can ask for help when I need it, as much as I want to be able to do it all alone. There are lots of people who can name two or three really good, close friends like that and I have so many more than that. Thank you, JJ, Mouse, Shannon, Julie, Alex, Rene', Rachael, Margaret, and Billie, for being there for me. I couldn't have made it this far without you.
I think about those friends and loved ones I've lost to this damnable disease, people who I needed and loved and who left this world too soon to my way of thinking, especially Mama, who had two bouts of breast cancer. Her death certificate didn't list cancer as a cause of death, but I have a feeling it was a contributing factor somewhere. I remembered her scar tissue as I contemplated my upcoming surgery and now, two years later as I look in the mirror, I see somewhat the same thing but not as thick, ropy and angry-looking. I think of her then, and I'm grateful she showed me how to live with what amounted to a disfigurement that could be hidden but never forgotten.
So tomorrow I begin year 3. I think it's good to have a reflective day about something like this. It makes me more aware of where I've been and where I am as well as giving me the opportunity to maybe gently look forward a bit, not too far and not too optimistically, but to still think more about life than death. I'll die of something one day, but perhaps not tomorrow or next week or even next year.
I may live with cancer brain but not necessarily cancer. Even if I do have it, it will be something to fight, something to work through and something that hopefully will not prevent me from continuing to put one foot in front of the other as long as possible.
Onward, ever upward -- or maybe just walking on somewhat rocky but fairly level ground. I'm surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, living and not, who are keeping me company on the journey. For that I am most grateful. Yeah. I am a survivor.
*Makar, Ashley, "Am I a Cancer Survivor?" found on KillingtheBuddha.com, accessed 9/20/14.