Today is National Cancer Survivors Day. It’s a day intended to celebrate those who have “battled” cancer, who have faced the beast and “won.” Or rather, who have found themselves in a place of sufficient distance from their disease to find reason to celebrate. Now, don’t get me wrong – I also find plenty of reasons to celebrate most days. But this idea of a day demarcating “survivorship” rings somewhat hollow to me. I don’t identify as a survivor, and, quite honestly, I don’t see myself in a position to anticipate “surviving” my illness moreso than I have done already, and am currently doing. Barring significant medical breakthroughs, I will never be a breast cancer survivor. I say this not to disparage those who find comfort and hope within these labels, but to recognize that, for myself, for those who have lost someone to this disease, and for others who do not see themselves in the moniker of “survivor,” it fails to be as inclusive as it was likely intended, and, truthfully, can be somewhat divisive and isolating – at least, for me.
Although I sound like a broken record, the last few weeks and months have been extraordinarily busy for our family. In some ways, the busyness has been stressful – I’ve had a ton of appointments, procedures, and changes in treatment. In other ways, they have been incredibly wonderful, fulfilling, and relaxing – we have had some amazing opportunities to step away and regroup as a family, and it has been amazing. We have been loved on and well cared for by family, friends, and strangers alike, and it has reminded me that, in whatever ways things shake out, our family will be ok.
Yet, in the quiet times amidst all of this activity, I have found myself giving myself the opportunity to pause, and to allow myself to be sad. I mean, really, gut-wrenchingly, eyes-blurred-from-tears, can’t stop sobbing sad. This will probably come as a surprise to no one, but I have a tendency to surround myself with work, with activities, with projects, and to fill my schedule to the brim until I have no choice but to pump the breaks, lest I have a total meltdown in the middle of the freeway (which, yes, has happened). And I have come to the realization that I need to have these moments of sadness. I need to let myself continue to grieve, to feel, to recognize that, despite being able to push through a lot of this stuff, that I am navigating an ongoing trauma, one that truly, truly, sucks. It really does, and it doesn’t get better. I’m not a survivor – I’m surviving, yes, but I’m never a set number of days until the end of my treatment. I’m in it forever.
Yesterday was the last dose of my first monthly cycle of Xeloda. It has had a few challenges, notably, a bit of fatigue by the end of the “on” weeks, but otherwise, I’m managing. I have been asked a lot recently when I’ll be done with this drug. I’ll be done when it stops working – that could be a year from now, or really, it could be next week. I also have another brain MRI coming up on Friday. This will be the first brain scan for me since my SRS brain radiation, and, honestly, I’m very nervous. I have had a lot of headaches, and I really don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping for the best, but having to anticipate the other potential scenarios as well: there could be more lesions that have popped up since the radiation treatment, and I could need more targeted radiation, full brain radiation, or a craniotomy. After so many months of bad news, of challenges for our family, of the hope that starting this new drug would give us some respite, there is no guarantee of any of that. It’s a very terrifying space to hold as part of my existence.
I feel like I have been moving at such a frenetic pace lately because I am continually reminded that my timeline has been drastically shortened. How do you fit an entire career, and an entire lifetime, into the space of “months to years”? You can’t. And you don’t. No matter how hard you try. In many ways, I find it important to recognize this truth, this reality. It coexists with the joy, the love, and the opportunities I experience with such thoughtful regularity, but it never leaves. Dylan Thomas cautioned us, “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the light” – but to me, rage feels less appropriate than determination, functionality, the recognition of one’s existence as a beautiful place-holder. Rage feels transient, an emotion that will blow through like a tornado, then leave its wreckage out in the open. I don’t see my sadness as causing wreckage, but as a building block, to be put in and taken out in an interminable game of Jenga. I find more solace in the words of Mary Oliver, the recognition of our words as our companionship in life – a gentler, more subtle resistance than Thomas’s rage, but one that carries far more strength.
But little by little, / as you left their voice behind, / the stars began to burn / through the sheets of clouds, / and there was a new voice / which you slowly / recognized as your own, / that kept you company / as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do – / determined to save / the only life that you could save.
-Mary Oliver, The Journey