Monday, June 1, 2015

Cancerversaries, Neuroses & the Beauty of Choices

While I loved the powerful irony of spending the two-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis at a conference filled with professionals targeting the annihilation of the disease, I stayed home this weekend. Instead of flying to Chicago to attend the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, I spent the weekend with my family. On Saturday, we power-shopped for an 8th grade promotion dance dress. We spent the afternoon reconnecting with friends at a Camp Kesem SCU Reunion. A walk, frozen yogurt, popcorn and a movie followed.

Because May 30th was a cancerversary.

Exactly two years ago, during a memorial for a friend’s mother, I took a call from the surgeon who performed my excisional biopsy. I was already in tears so, when she told me that I had breast cancer, my new tears of fear bled into the slow trickle of wetness that was already on my face.

Six months later, I attempted to take back the 30th by throwing an enormous Gratitude Party for all those who had supported us in what we now refer to as “The $hitty Summer of Cancer.” And, at that time, I just desperately wanted to wear the Won and Done mantle and move on with my life.

That didn’t exactly happen.

Significant reminders exist. Scars both physical and emotional. And I still commemorate all the dates around scans, biopsies, diagnosis, second opinions and surgeries. They are all my cancerversaries and, like it or not, part of who I am now.

Over the past two years, I’ve learned that survivorship is not always simple. While day-to-day my own mortality is no longer at the very forefront of my mind, occasionally it rears its head wildly, as it has these past few weeks, leading up to significant dates.

Moments of surreal, unfounded, neurotic panic have flooded the quiet moments. In the month of May, I am attuned to just how quickly life can change. I vividly remember going from baseline mammogram to sitting in the radiologist’s office. I vividly remember the wire location exercise prior to my excisional biopsy. I vividly remember the 80s music playing in the surgical suite. I vividly remember that phone call.

 And I vividly remember the fear.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by that fear while I wore the emotional shield of empowered pragmatism. I remember hearing “brave” and feeling terrified. People have mentioned post-traumatic stress in the same sentence as cancer for a reason - the experience is, as an understatement, traumatic.

The fact that this May also brought a brain MRI and an endometrial biopsy, did nothing to relieve the anxiety-riddled memories. However, sitting around the house urgently thinking “I NEED to make NEW memories… NOW. Right NOW!” was probably the biggest clue that something might be amiss.

In reality nothing was or is amiss. This is survivorship, or just plain life, after a cancer diagnosis. There are weeks and months of fabulous days and then a few intense moments in between where recurrence, metastasis and mortality are heavy on my mind.

Occasionally those moments of intensity can be crushing.

Ultimately a moment of intensity a few weeks ago led me to the decision to miss out on the people and presentations that make up the annual ASCO meeting. If I attended the meeting, I would miss out on making memories with my family. And, when feeling the intense need to live a condensed life, every memory counts.

As the meeting approached, I was bummed to miss out. Yet, as the meeting kicked off, I realized that not being THERE allowed me to be HERE. Even so, it took a few days for me to settle in to the wisdom of my choice.

Perspective is a funny thing.

Instead of seeing the latest research presented by the researchers themselves, I was able to shop for a semi-formal dress with my daughter who is typically loathe to don anything but jeans and a t-shirt. Instead of spending a few valuable days with amazing patient advocates and brilliant advocates for patients, I spent an afternoon with my son working on his First Aid merit badge. Instead of attending a Tweetup, I snuggled with my husband on the couch with a bucket of buttered popcorn and watched a Redbox movie projected on our living room wall.

And I celebrated a cancerversary with my family. Rather, I celebrated and they kindly acknowledged.

There was no cake. There were no candles. But I am here and that is a fact we are all equally grateful for, even if the emotional highs and lows around these anniversary dates don’t always make sense to them. 

(Hell, they don’t always make sense to me.)

Survivorship is fraught with ups and downs but time seems to be easing some of the larger issues. Exactly two years after a breast cancer diagnosis, I noticed that all my “big decisions” this weekend were categorically unrelated to treatment and my fears of missing out were absolutely unrelated to life and death. In retrospect, my thoughts this weekend never once reflected on losing both breasts as well as my peace of mind.

So why celebrate some of the most challenging dates of my life? Why do I choose to remember? Because they are days and emotions I can never forget and, if I’m going to acknowledge them, celebrating seems to be a helluva lot more fun than “commemorating."

Celebrating a cancerversary means I’m still here and still able to make choices. And, no matter how difficult, there is beauty in the ability to make choices. There is incredible beauty in just being on this planet another day. And, with that perspective, I can clearly see the beauty in just living life and every beautiful neurotic moment!

Pink Hydrangea
Gratitude Party gift & General Life-is-Beautiful Reminder