Thankful for five years
I’ve done what I did not expect to do. Survive breast cancer. It surprised me, but probably nobody else.
I didn’t think I would make it even though survival, no matter how demanding, is expected of women. Thousands of women do it, not unlike going back to work after a child is born or raising kids alone when their dad remarries. No big deal. It is just another challenging thing women do every day.
My five-year anniversary — the prize I couldn’t imagine while I was beaten down by treatment — came in spite of my congenital pessimism. It came even though I was not always hopeful, often afraid and in spite of thinking I could die.
The anniversary earlier this month did not warrant a celebration. I became as statistically unlikely to have a recurrence as the general population is to get cancer, but I could not whoop it up. Would the woman down the street celebrate the fact she has about a one in eight chance of getting breast cancer? No, I don’t think so. Unable to muster a heartfelt yahoo I let the anniversary slip past with little notice, without confetti or champagne. A high five with a friend and a simple toast to life was almost too much.
Don’t get me wrong. Being with the living and none the worse for the wear, is definitely a good thing,
but I didn’t feel like marking the occasion with gaiety. Pink ribbons and balloons — no thanks. Nor can I utter the common pronouncement of other survivors, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” That would be a gross misstatement, a crazy thing for me to say. Do I have such a wonderful life, full of so many riches, that I can’t imagine placing “getting cancer” at, or even near, the top of my list of blessings? Yes, I am blessed but saying cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me would be like praying my house would burn down so I wouldn’t have that messy closet. I count survival as the valuable experience, not getting cancer. I am altered, probably stronger and dare I say wiser for living through cancer — but I wish it had not happened to me.
I’m not ungrateful. No. I am very grateful. I know I received a gift. Every moment, both good and bad, for the past five years has been gravy. Cancer illuminated that for me along with my eventual but inescapable end. I know, in a visceral way I am sure to die — I just don’t know when — and with that realization came my conversion to optimism. The possibility of a day lying ahead is enough for comfort and on most days joy. Before diagnosis I was oblivious to the fact that my health is not guaranteed, nor is a tomorrow, only my death. I failed to grasp my time was finite, limited and precious. From the threat caught growing inside my right breast I learned the invaluable lesson — at the end of my days, no matter how many or how few, each moment and how I spent it will add up to the sum of my life. The minute I waste irritated at my mother, the time I invest to cuddle Ed on the couch, the second I squander to snarle at him, a moment I exhaust in anger or venture in glee, in total is my life. In survival I revel in that calculus. The epiphany of survival is I have the chance to celebrate each fleeting moment… or not. That is the best thing that has ever happened to me, not cancer.