There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to get you to reflect on your ten-year cancer anniversary.
I became a self-taught expert in navigating the U.S. healthcare system beginning around February 2010, when I was 35. I was sitting at work one morning and I felt an explosive pain in my abdomen. A can’t-breathe, can’t-move kind of pain. I knew it wasn’t normal, but I wanted to convince myself that bodies are weird and do weird things, and I’d worry about it if it happened again. And, of course, it happened again soon enough.
With a call in to my primary doctor, I started down the long road to getting a diagnosis. No one really thought it could be cancer. I was told kidney stones, a uterine fibroid, maybe cysts. Eventually, out of answers, I was given Vicodin and sent home from my last hope appointment I had waited months for. But the pain was becoming more and more frequent, and I was waking up drenched in night sweats.
After more than six months of making rounds with specialists, my primary care physician was concerned that I was still in so much agony. She ordered a CT scan and everything got very serious, very quickly.
At the imaging center, I got to taste my first (but certainly not my last) barium shake and felt the now-familiar effect of contrast dye as it warms your insides, making its way through your veins just before you glide into that CT scan tube to whatever awaits. I remember being more afraid of the effects of the barium than the results of the scan.
Then came the colonoscopy. The discovery of a mass. And three days later, on August 22, 2010, I was called at home on a Sunday afternoon at 1:01 p.m. Time stood still as I got the news that it was malignant. I had colon cancer.
All those months of being my own best advocate in this fight had paid off in the most disappointing way possible. Colon cancer doesn’t even run in my family. I didn’t have the right symptoms. I was too young.
But cancer didn’t care about any of that. It didn’t care about my age, my sex, that I went to spinning class after work or hiked on the weekends. It had come and I had no choice but to trudge through the next five years of surgeries, scans, treatments, recurrence scares, scopes, and, later, a bout with a rare angiosarcoma.
What I learned is that there is no right way to be a survivor. I’ve experienced a lot of feelings around having cancer. Anger and devastation are probably the ones I’ve been in touch with the most intimately. Based on the size of my tumor, my surgeon estimated that I probably had cancer for 10-15 years before even being diagnosed. Talk about anger. It’s hard for me to look back on photos from those years knowing that it was there inside of me, multiplying, while I’m smiling for the camera.
But I’ve yet to feel grateful for the experience. Some survivors can find the grace to look at their struggle and see opportunity. I never needed cancer to teach me to live life to the fullest and appreciate the small things. I’m the same person. I still get frustrated in traffic, small talk makes me nervous, and I don’t always stop and smell the roses. But man, I’m glad I’m still alive to say all that.
For survivors, bargaining can become part of our day-to-day life. When I got that phone call on August 22, 2010, I just wanted to live to see my family that Christmas. Please, God, just let me make it to Christmas. After I got through the holiday, I started thinking about getting to one year, and one year became three, and then I told myself I could breathe once I hit five years.
At five years I wondered, “Do I dare think about ten?”
And now I’ve been thinking about ten. Quite a lot. This pandemic has brought up so many uncomfortable but weirdly familiar emotions. When I had cancer, anxiety was a constant companion. I had to surrender to the fact that things were just happening to me, and most of it was out of my control. And now all those uneasy feelings have been stirred up once more. I’m doing my best to, again, acknowledge and accept this strange new landscape. I’ve already caught myself thinking, please let me see my family at Christmas.
To my fellow survivors - whether you’ve survived one decade, one year, or just one day since diagnosis - I wish us all the happiest and healthiest of days ahead. I hope you celebrate yourself this year on National Cancer Survivors Day.
And I promise I’ll post another update in ten years.
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