I was full of gratitude for still being here and healthy 10 years after my diagnosis. I was relishing the idea of starting into a new decade, when I had so often been unable to believe in the likelihood reaching the end of this one. And I was looking forward to cancer, while never really being gone from my life, becoming less immediately present.
I knew that although 10 years is pretty monumental, given where I started, it was not the end of my risk. I know that. I’ve read all the information and paid too close attention to my doctors to make the mistake of thinking it’s all behind me. The risk is still there. It gets smaller with each passing year, but I still live with risk – we all do.
But I was celebrating.
Then I had my annual oncologist visit. And the celebration stopped. While I was regaling him with tales of my triumphal run, he noticed something in my remaining breast. A change. Suddenly, I realized with horror that I had gotten rather lax about my self-exams. It had been several months since I had done a thorough exam. He was right – not really a lump, but definitely a significant change.
On to my surgeon, mammo, ultra-sound, and needle biopsy. This all took place over a week and a half because I was visiting my family for my niece’s graduation. As unsettling as all this was, I knew that there was no need to interrupt my short travel plans. If this was something, one week wouldn’t make a difference. But it did make for a troubling week.
All came back fine – benign – yea! – but….
Snap, back to reality!
Back to more checks, more frequent doc visits, more anxiety, more life with cancer.
I am not a superstitious person, but I admit to having plenty of thoughts of: Did I somehow jinx this? Here I was celebrating 10 years, was that like tempting the gods? Did I start to take my good health for granted?
It’s shocking how easily and quickly we can all fall into wondering if this is all somehow our fault. We know it’s not. We know there are certain behaviors that can increase or decrease our risk of cancer, but cause and effect is never so direct or absolute. All smokers are not guaranteed of getting lung cancer, and some people who never smoked do get it.
No, I didn’t cause my cancer, and no, I didn’t cause this little scare. But what’s it all mean?
I’m fine and still terribly grateful for my good health. But this was like a punch in the stomach after so much time. I know that I’m still at risk, but it’s been quite a while since a scare; my doc visits had begun to feel almost routine (weird to say a visit to the oncologist can ever feel routine).
I didn’t write about this until now for several reasons. One is my family. My parents read this blog regularly and I hate to upset them. Of course I would tell them if something were wrong, but I see no need to upset them unnecessarily. One of the most painful phone calls I made when I was diagnosed was to my parents. I don’t want to relive any portion of that on either side simply for tests – they’re only tests.
Another is my own struggle to balance my joy at a big milestone with the depressing fact that I’m still a cancer survivor. And that means that I will always be at risk for recurrence or new cancers. I will always face a battery of tests whenever my very vigilant doctors notice something – this is good, though – I’m still here in large part because my doctors have been vigilant. I will always be a cancer survivor, with all that that entails.
And what’s it all mean? I want some sort of meaning. I want a reason for plummeting from a joyful, triumphant celebration to the pits of anxiety, when all the memories of the times when tests (“it’s probably nothing”) did not turn out well come rushing back, fresh like it was yesterday. When hearing one sentence can suck the air from my lungs.
Does this mean my celebration was for naught? Does it mean it doesn’t count?
No, I don’t think so. Reaching 10 years is monumental – no matter what happens next. None of us know what will happen next. We’re all at risk. Life is a risk. As survivors, we know that better than many folks. We know it in a very immediate, in your face kind of way. And maybe that’s not a terrible thing.
Maybe this was just a terrible and wonderful reminder.
Terrible because it’s a reminder that cancer will never be far from my life. Terrible because of the memories, the anxiety, the fear.
But wonderful because it reminds me of just how precious every one of the last 10 years has been, every moment going forward – however long that is. Every celebration, every step – precious. After all, isn’t that the reason we so desperately want to survive? Isn’t that the whole point?