Though I don’t always think of myself that way. I had breast cancer four years ago. I was diagnosed from a routine screening mammogram at the age of 46. Stage IIA. I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I take Tamoxifen daily. I’m “clean” and should supposedly live a full life and hopefully die from something other than breast cancer.
I’m so clear that usually I forget that I had cancer. When I see someone who I don’t frequently see, they tilt their head and earnestly ask, “How are you?” Particularly people who met me when I was in chemotherapy and was wearing head coverings. Or when my hair was very short as it grew back. My husband says he too gets the pointed question, “How’s Susan?” He always knows what they mean. Sometimes people are more specific. “How’s your health?” they persist. I’m sure their questions come from a place of caring and concern.
“Huh?” I reply. “Oh that,” I remember. “I’m fine. That was 4 years ago.”
I mostly forget that I had cancer. I feel like everyone else who worries about a new lump, bump or symptom they have. I never felt compelled to make “cancer survivor” my primary identity. I said to my husband, between the bad mammogram results and the actual diagnosis, “If I have breast cancer, I’m not wearing that pink ribbon.” He got the Seinfeld reference. I didn’t want to be part of the big walk/run world. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate all of the people who train, walk, and raise money for the cause. I joked that having my friends and family for a mimosa brunch on a “breast cancer event” morning would be more my style.
Sure, I have a scar on my breast and a “tattoo” from radiation therapy but I don’t really see them anymore. Yes, I have annual mammograms and see my oncologist at regular intervals. I recently went for a routine mammogram and someone wished me good luck. They meant well, but I don’t view going for my mammogram in that way. Sure, you can have a secondary breast cancer, but it is unlikely to come back in the breast. When I do worry, it’s about a metastatic recurrence somewhere else in my body – lungs, brain, bones. But I am relieved anyway when the mammogram is clear. It gives me a sense of security that I am cancer free, for now.
My sister is one of two people in my family of origin who has not had any cancer diagnoses. She’s waiting for her”cancer turn” in our family. She feels it’s only a matter of time. But she doesn’t seem to be fretting about it in her daily thoughts. It’s just stuffed to the dark recesses of her mind, like the rest of us.
“We’re all hospice patients,” I like to say. Some people hate when I say that.
“That’s the most half-empty thing you say,” my husband noted of my usually optimistic personality.
But I really think of it as half-full. I think of life as a trajectory, from the moment we’re born. I try to enjoy every phase of life I’m in. I don’t yearn for the past or pine for the future. Or worry about the future. I just hope for the best. Call it denial. I call it “living.”
A few years before I had cancer, I was hiking in a forest in Alaska. I was overcome by the vastness of nature and for the first time in my life felt like an insignificant speck of dust in the universe. This did not frighten me, but rather helped me see my part in the world and feel okay with it. Am I important? Yes. Do people need and rely on me? Of course. Will the world go on without me? Absolutely.
So when I received my cancer diagnosis and worried about my demise, this thought helped me find a little peace. That, and baseball, a game I usually have no interest in. During that dreadful time before the definitive diagnosis my family went to a baseball game. And for the first time, I felt comfort in the slow pace, the crowd, and – okay – maybe a beer or two. I told my sister about my experience and how I thought I may become a baseball fan.
“Yeah, that won’t last,” she said.
She was right, of course. But I do like baseball a little more than I used to, even though it always reminds me of that time in my life.
As a cancer survivor, this feeling of impermanence is how I live my life. I feel a certain urgency to impart all of my wisdom and knowledge to my kids (without them knowing it). I want to avoid them sitting on the therapy couch saying,
“My Mom always talked about dying and was constantly shoving wisdom down my throat.”
Let them go to therapy for the many other ways I will surely screw them up.
I know how lucky I was with my cancer experience. I am keenly aware of the many people I know who live with cancer as a chronic illness and can’t “forget” about it as easily as I can. For those people, constant vigilance and treatment make this impossible. And of course, I can’t help but think about the many people who have succumbed to this disease.
So thanks everyone for all your concern and caring. I’m fine, for now.