When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re booted into a new country with its own language and customs.* An example: marking “cancerversaries.” Spellcheck may not recognize the term (it’s underlined in squiggly red on my screen as I type this), but if you are, or have been, a cancer patient, you probably do.
A “cancerversary” is, of course, the anniversary of your cancer. Today is mine.**
I was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, on January 15, 2008. What that means, specifically, is that I took a call from my doctor while at work. (Was it in the morning? The afternoon? I honestly don’t remember. You start out thinking these things will be seared into your memory, but it turns out they’re not.) Despite the fact that I had recently been called back to investigate some sketchy mammogram findings, had something show up on the follow-up ultrasound (“almost certainly a cyst”), had that something aspirated (“yep, a cyst”) and the brownish fluid it contained sent to the lab for analysis (“standard procedure”) – and despite the fact that it’s rarely good news when your doctor calls you out of the blue – I was more puzzled than worried. Why on earth was Dr. S calling?
He was obviously uncomfortable, and his discomfort made him stammer, so it took a while for me to figure out what he was trying to say. I heard a “sorry” and an “unfortunately” and “cells” and then, finally, the word that got my attention: “malignancy.”
As I held the word “malignancy” up to the light, turning it around so I could inspect it from all angles, more words tumbled out. “Biopsy.” “Appointment.” “Surgeon.” “Lumpectomy.” “Radiation.” “Mastectomy.”
At the end of the call, ever polite, I thanked him.
I won’t go into the details of my diagnosis and treatment in this post, other than to say that Dr. S’s call put me on a long and winding road of biopsies, follow-up images, follow-up biopsies to the follow-up images, surgery and chemo. Screw all that. On my cancerversary, I’m going to skip right past the first eight months of 2008 and take stock, instead, of the months and years since then.
No evidence of disease. I am, by all the evidence, cancer-free. That’s not the same as being cured. With breast cancer, there’s no magic number of years after which you can breathe a sigh of relief and say, “There! It’s over and done.” I know that, and yet, with each cancerversary, it gets easier to approach life as though I am, in fact, cured. Call it denial, call it whatever, but it works for me. And speaking of life . . .
Life is generally good. I was the single mother of a teenager when I was diagnosed, and I had one non-negotiable demand of fate: to live long enough to see my daughter, then a freshman, graduate from high school. Anything short of that was unacceptable, anything beyond that would be a gift. And now? My high school freshman is a college senior, I’m married to a wonderful guy (two years and counting), I made the big move from Detroit to Brooklyn, and I’ve even returned to running as a modestly competitive age-grouper. Under the terms of the original deal, those are all “gifts” – but, you know, I’m looking to renegotiate. Because . . .
Having to be grateful all the time kind of sucks. Cultivating gratitude is a good and virtuous thing and I’m all for it. But to feel you must be grateful (especially for things other people are allowed to take for granted), or that it’s churlish to complain about creaky joints and numb armpits and slow 10K times and other stuff I won’t go into here (you’re alive, aren’t you?) . . . well, it’s oppressive. And complicated by a dollop of survivors’ guilt. Especially since . . .
My friends keep dying. Part of being diagnosed with cancer, at least in a world of online social networks and support groups, is that you meet many, many other people with cancer. Some of those people become good friends, and some heartbreaking number of those friends die. The shadow over every cancerversary is the knowledge that not everyone makes their next one. Laura, Randie, Dana, Elizabeth, Allison, Pamela, C: each year, the list of women I miss grows longer. Sometimes I miss them acutely and sometimes the missing is a kind of background thrum, but it doesn’t go away.
Those are my cancerversary thoughts. Now I’m going out for a run.
. . .
I always love getting comments on this blog, but with this post, I’m particularly interesting in hearing from other cancer patients. I hope you’ll feel free to share your own cancerversary stories – how (if at all) do you mark them, what memories do they stir up, and how has your approach to significant dates changed over time?
Or whatever the hell else you’d like to say.
*This is not exactly an original observation: Barbara Ehrenreich has described “Cancerland” with wit and anger, while Susan Sontag earlier wrote about the “kingdom of the sick.” What’s most striking, at least to me, are the many cancer patients who’ve never heard of either woman, but who grasp at the same images – of borders crossed, dislocation, foreign-ness – when they describe their own experiences.
**I consider my date of diagnosis to be my cancerversary, but the term could also apply to the date of initial surgery, the date of subsequent surgeries, first chemo, last chemo, etc. The rule is: your cancer, your choice. That rule, applied more broadly, is cancer etiquette 101.