Does The Burden of Cancer Ever Go Away?
I still remember how optimistic I was when I had reached two years cancer free, thinking that this terrible burden of cancer would be gone, and this huge weight would be lifted off my shoulders. It was a great moment when my oncologist declared me still cancer free, and I sent out a big note of thanks to friends, family, and colleagues that had been there to support me. I thought this was all done, but the truth was, I was still just as afraid of cancer in the weeks and months after my big two years cancer free milestone as I was before, and I was disheartened and continued to struggle in life. I still had anxiety issues, I still suffered from periods of depression due to cancer, and yes, I still suffered from post traumatic stress as well.
I didn’t even technically need to be followed by an oncologist anymore, and opted to be "fired"and have what minimal annual checks I ought to have done taken care of by my primary care at annual physicals. I had evolved so much by this time, had found ways to find peace and fulfillment in spite of having had cancer in my life, and release so many of the fears that I had been holding onto. As fate would have it, someone I had cared for so deeply passed away from a late recurrence of his cancer right as I was going through my five year checks and formal discharge from oncology. My friend's late recurrence came seven years after his original fight had ended, and he died nine years after his original diagnosis. How then could I possibly feel truly at peace and at ease with cancer at the five year mark for my own cancer, right as I was preparing to fly out to be by the side of my friend’s family and speak at his celebration of life? If it happened to him, it could happen to me too. Even at five years, the fear never left me.
Turning 40 last year was definitely a huge deal for me, because for years I'd just felt cursed and accepted in my mind that I would never make it to 40, and have lived my life accordingly. I spent most of 2017 as a 39 year old being a little freaked out, as this small part of my mind just wouldn’t let go of this idea that I wasn’t actually going to make it to 40, whether due to cancer, a freak accident or tragedy, or anything else. Turning 40 definitely reset things for me, and redefined my own impossible. For the first time I've been able to think about my future as if I might actually have one, this thing called a career, and long-term goals. The burden of cancer, however, remains.
As I celebrated Christmas with my family as a newly minted 40 year old "middle-aged adult", I couldn’t help but wonder once again, would this be the last one? Strange pains are never a good thing for any cancer survivor, but guess what's common for cancer survivors that have been through harsh treatments and invasive surgeries, guess what's more common in the cold winter months, and as anyone gets older? Yes, strange pains throughout my body, some localized and some spread out, and along with that the fears of my cancer having returned and facing the same fate as my friend, or a second cancer having developed, and all of the worries, fears, and anxiety that comes with that. Once you've had cancer, it never truly leaves you.
Sadly, in the months after I turned 40, I just felt that much closer to the inevitable, and whatever cancer or disease or terrible tragedy was going to happen next. Not that I was really expecting it, but there was no warm and reassuring blanket of security wrapping itself around me, and telling me that I was going to be okay now. You lose that security blanket forever as soon as you hear the words "you have cancer" and have to learn to live without it. I enjoyed every moment of our 40th birthday celebrations with our family and friends. The smiles and the laughs were all real, and I have the poundage on me to prove we've been eating well. But in the midst of all of this, another round of anxiety and depression from which I’ve struggled off and on with for years because of cancer. It's a blessing to live in a time where cancers such as mine can be cured, but life is never easy as a cancer survivor, and the burden of cancer never truly goes away.
The way I see it is this. I’ve been blessed with seven amazing years since cancer, and I've lived my life so fully each year since, that my cancer diagnosis feels like it was an entire lifetime ago. I know there's never any guarantees for the future, but if I keep living my life the same way I have been, I'll have felt like I've lived an entirely new lifetime in the next seven years and will still be considered young by many at only 47. And that's exactly what I plan to do. As we've gotten 2018 vacation plans finalized, it put my mind at ease, because if this is going to be my last year, dammit it’s going to be so amazing, again! This is how I've lived each year since cancer, and it's the only way I know how to live. As I reflect back on my seven years of cancer survivorship and having graduated to middle adulthood, I see a lifetime of so many amazing memories and adventures with family and great friends to look back on, and I'm "only 40". I've lived more each year since cancer than I had in all of my previous 33 years combined before. Whenever the time comes for me to go, there's no question that I'll have lived a rich and full life.
It took me a long time to understand this quote by Mark Twain, but I get it now. The burden of cancer never truly goes away, but turn it into a force for good in your life. Live your life positively, love yourself, love others, make a difference in the world, live your dreams, and enjoy every moment of time that you have with your family and friends, and people that truly mean something to you. Appreciate every day, every moment, every smile, every laugh, and every opportunity. When you so immerse yourself in the moment like this, you have a very rich life experience where you don't miss a thing, and you feel so complete. We all have a time and a moment coming where our lives are going to change. I pray I have many more years coming, but knowing that I’m living my life completely and not wasting any time helps to put me at ease when I once again face uncertainty, and I always have a wealth of positive memories to draw comfort from. I live the rich, full, and complete life that I do because of the burden of cancer that drives me.
The richness in my life, the depth of my experiences, and the force for good that I've turned this burden into far outweighs the occasional pain that I continue to endure from it. I would not have my life any other way.