My cancer album

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.

Here goes:

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.


10 thoughts on “Cancerversaries

  1. I realized when you wrote this that I don’t remember the cancerversary date anymore- I know vaguely what month it was but I really cant remember the date anymore and I think that is a good thing– but all the other stuff- H*** YES— I am grateful and it taken me until this last year to realize and fully implement some serious boundaries and not just taking on anything and being used in the guise of being grateful- SOOO liberating truthfully! I also want to renegotiate my stuff too lol!


  2. Coming up on four months since my husband was diagnosed with a “cancer of unknown origin” (WTF? Is that punting, or what?) and we are still struggling to find a workable treatment. Still trying to wrap our heads around it. Still trying to refine our gallows humor. (“Why do you think you are feeling depressed today, M? Well, there’s the CANCER, that kind of contributes to it.”) Still trying to deal with the constant refrain that we are so “brave,” when all we feel is terrified. Thanks for a lovely post. Think I’ll go out for a run.


    • So sorry for what you’re going through. The waiting and not knowing was the worst part for me, so I can’t begin to imagine dealing with a cancer of unknown origin. Gallows humor – and running – definitely help, though. All the best to both of you.


  3. I think it was late February? Early March? I can’t remember. I was recovering from ARDS. (I cannot ever forget the detail of that). I was sitting in the waiting room with my husband; he had taken me in to get the results of my lumpectomy. I was recovering I picked up a Time magazine, intending to flick through it aimlessly when I saw a letter-to-the-editor and my eyes immediately rested on the word ‘calcification’. I had a flashback to the radiographer saying that word. In that moment, Matrix-style, my world went into the slowest of the slow slow motion. The surgeon (that stunning genius, a diminutive Chinese woman..surely too young to be a REAL surgeon?) came out and said, “You can come in too, Drew.” “Confirmed”, I thought. She went straight to the guts of it. I sat there in my slowest of slow motion kind of focussed on the middle distance but taking in every word in the most exquisite detail, and in my peripheral vision I could see my 6′ 6″ husband of 12 months kind of dissolve, somehow. He spoke, he saked questions, he took notes. He’s a chemist, after all. But he was dissolving somehow and I was acutely aware of that part. I thanked her and we went home. My May 08 sisters, you, Linda, and others here, know every detail of the following year, as I’m sure all the other readers here do. After that? No..I refuse to live on the cancer carousel. Am I grateful for my slap awake? Yes, I am. I am grateful, grateful grateful! But I was raised and educated to be grateful, long before this disease. Living through this past seven years, in this new and much changed world of mine, I am grateful for every little thing and at the same time I feel it a priviledge of age to whinge about whatever the hell I want, starting with my garbage-old-lady-feet. That’s normal, and I’ll take it. Thanks! I miss my dead cancer-sisters. I grieve for them, and their loved ones who now have to lives in that same weird slow-motion-loss version of life..imposed on them by this disease. Thank you for your blog, sis. Thank YOU.


  4. Pingback: Breast cancer, the Affordable Care Act, my friend and me (and why you should care) | Not another Brooklyn blog

  5. Well, at least your MD said “Sorry,” which is more than my (now former) PCP did… Not once in the 45 minutes that she spent going on about how this was just a bump in the road did she ever once express regret that I was dealing with locally advanced cancer.

    That aside, I know this is an older blog post but I stumbled on it today (via Nancy’s Point) just as I was mentally lashing out at the whole notion of having to be grateful – for the medical staff who don’t have enough time for us, the counselors with dozens of other (more acutely needy) clients, the support groups whose speakers keep cancelling because, you know, they’re so busy…

    And then we’re supposed to “give back” somehow.

    I feel that I did my “giving back” in the decades before cancer tapped me on the shoulder, before it usurped my energy, my time, and my funds. I’m sure that in the future I’ll circle back to that point and enjoy ‘passing it on’ but I’m not there yet.

    I refuse to feel ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Survivor’s sorrow, yes. Anger, dismay,grief, fear, love and frustration on behalf of those who are gone. But never guilt. Doing cancer is hard enough; let’s not take on any needless (societally suggested) burdens.

    I’d go out for a run but I have another batch of letters to write to Congress regarding the utter necessity of protecting the ACA. Maybe giving what for is my current form of giving back?


    • “Maybe giving what for is my current form of giving back.” I love that thought so much. And yeah, more generally, I think that anger as a response to a cancer diagnosis doesn’t get the recognition (maybe even celebration) it should.


  6. Pingback: Ten years out | Not another Brooklyn blog

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