I’ve always known I was a fighter, but a survivor? Not so much. My mother; now she was a survivor. She fled a 20-year abusive marriage with nothing but a high school education and four kids in tow, the youngest being 7 (me), and she created the best life she could. That’s what I call a survivor. I’m sure without her will to survive, my life would have gone in a very different direction.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word survivor and what it really means in context with cancer. I guess I’m thinking about it more now than usual because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and everywhere I turn I see pink ribbons, pink hats, and lots of things that say “Survivor” on them. With breast cancer or any kind of cancer for that matter, I imagine it’s important to identify yourself as a survivor as quickly as possible. It helps with the mental game. Some people consider themselves a survivor the minute they start treatment. Others see themselves as survivors the moment they’ve completed treatment. According to the National Cancer Institute, “you are a survivor on the day that you are diagnosed and throughout the rest of your life.” It’s a big question. One quick Google search on “Who is considered a breast cancer survivor” resulted in 26,600,000 results in 0.55 seconds.
I think of survivor in literal terms. The dictionary says a survivor is “a person who survives, especially a person remaining after an event in which others have died.” By that definition, I guess I’m a survivor, sort of. Forty-one thousand people die from breast cancer each year. I’m sure many of them thought of themselves as survivors. The problem is that for cancer people there’s always a “yet” in your head. I haven’t died – yet. It reminds me of when one of my daughters was at that teenage rebellious stage and she would make a sassy statement and I would think (and sometimes say to her) “given the way you made that statement, go ahead and add dumb-shit after it because that’s what you want to say, such as “leave me alone, dumb-shit.” But I digress.
I’m finished with treatment, except the re-reconstruction and I’m on medication for the next seven years. Maybe after then, I’ll consider myself a survivor. But, (there’s always a “but”) as any cancer patient knows, cancer could come back at any time.
When I first finished treatment, people would ask me if I was all done and good as new, or if I was cancer-free. The truth was that I had no idea if I was cancer-free. The doctors went through the established protocol for treatment and based on that, the assumption was that I was cancer free. Usually, I would just shrug and say, “I guess.”
I visited my oncologist a couple of weeks ago, which is to say I had a medical appointment but “visit” sounds so much nicer. Because of some strange side effects, she ordered a CT Scan of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis. I guess if the cancer were to come back, that is where it is most likely to occur first. I had the scans done the following week and waited patiently for the results. Like anyone who has waited for test results, I kept telling myself that if it was something bad, she would call right away. No news is good news. I couldn’t take it anymore – it had been seven days, so I called the office and her nurse put me on hold forever (which was actually less than two minutes) and came back and said. “You’re clear. There is no sign of metastasis.” So, there it was, I had my answer. I am cancer free.
Some people celebrate their “cancerversary” (cancer anniversary) which can be quite arbitrary from a date standpoint, but they do nonetheless. No disrespect to those who do, but I just don’t see myself celebrating the day I was diagnosed or the day I finished or anything else related to cancer because cancer will never be out of my life. Once you get it; you’re in the club forever.
On second thought, I might celebrate something special about cancer – the day I realize that cancer doesn’t define me. Sure, cancer has changed my perspective on life and most everything else, but the journey has given me the freedom to create the life I want, rather than make the best of the life I had. I’ll probably write on this at some point, but not today. After I’ve really worked it out in my head and my heart because it’s deep. The day I start to truly embrace that power and create the life I want, will be one of, if not, the most important day of my life. Now that is worth celebrating.
I feel like I’m on the precipice of it, in a good way. And, I’m making progress. I’m confident that cancer doesn’t define me and never will. I still don’t know for sure where this journey is leading me. But, there is one thing I know for sure — there is no cancer in my body now. I am cancer-free!